Category Archives: Religious Liberty

Religious Rights And Privileges

Religious conflicts have been the subject of a number of my recent posts, and have triggered some fairly robust discussions in the comments. I think both the posts and the subsequent conversations evidence the persistence and extent of efforts to have government privilege certain beliefs over others.

Significant numbers of Americans reject the Constitutional separation of church and state.

The First Amendment has two religion clauses. The Establishment Clause basically removes government from matters of faith. As the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled, government cannot sponsor religious observances or endorse religious beliefs. (As I rather inelegantly put it to my students, government is supposed to “butt out” of our souls.) The Free Exercise Clause forbids government from interfering with the beliefs of citizens, or with citizens’ religious observances to the extent that those don’t violate “laws of general application.” (Your religion may tell you to sacrifice your firstborn, or ingest hallucinogens, but laws of general application prevent you from acting on those particular beliefs.)

Government was withdrawn from matters the Founders believed should properly be the purview of churches and individual consciences.–This decision was based upon respect for individual autonomy, but it was also an effort to minimize public conflicts over matters of faith. (The Founders were all too aware of Europe’s history of religious conflict).

So why are people in the United States constantly arguing about religion?

Katherine Franke, a law professor who recently plunged into the religious wars in a column for the Washington Post, suggests one reason. She writes that this administration has “weaponized the notion of religious liberty” to advance a blatantly partisan, conservative agenda. In other words, efforts to privilege some religious beliefs over others are really efforts to advance a decidedly political agenda.

The column began with a description of an unusual lawsuit by a religious order–nuns who claim their religious-freedom rights are being violated by the construction and pending use of a natural-gas pipeline on their land in Pennsylvania. They say their faith requires that they “treasure” the land.

Needless to say, the government’s response has been less than solicitous, despite numerous sanctimonious pronouncements about religious “liberty” from Vice-President Pence and Attorney General Sessions. As Franke notes,

You can count on the government’s support if you’re a cake baker who considers same-sex marriage to be an abomination, or a nun who believes that contraception is murder, or a school administrator whose faith tells him that a person’s sex is fixed by God at birth. In these cases, Justice Department lawyers will show up like the cavalry, ready to go down fighting.

But not so much for Unitarians, whose faith drives them to leave water and food in the desert for migrants who will die without help. Or Catholic activists who believe that nuclear weapons are a death pact with the devil. Or the “Adorers,” who oppose the building of a gas pipeline on their property. Or Muslims in almost any context.

…..

The Justice Department is aggressively prosecuting faith-based humanitarian volunteers with the organization No More Deaths, a group affiliated with the Unitarian Church in southern Arizona. Its mission includes leaving water and food for migrants crossing the scorching-hot Sonoran Desert, where hundreds of people die every year. The government lawyers have trivialized these faith-based humanitarians’ religious-liberty claims, calling them scoundrels. This prompted a group of law professors who are experts in law and religion, myself included, to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, pointing out to the judge how the Justice Department has misconstrued religious liberty law in this case.

These official responses to actions motivated by faith make it patently obvious that the pious proclamations of concern for religious sensibilities are highly–and politically–selective. A congregation feeding undocumented immigrants cannot expect the same degree of forbearance or respect as the baker or florist refusing to serve a same-sex couple.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly noted that religious-liberty rights are not absolute, yet they should be given serious consideration in light of the government’s other compelling interests. What we see from this government is the evangelization of its own policy goals, accompanied by the demonization of its critics. In no way was this what religious liberty meant to the nation’s founders, nor should it be what it means today.

There’s Religion, And Then There’s Religion

Yesterday’s post sparked a number of comments about religion, pro and (mostly) con.

It is easy to look at the self-righteousness of the Christian warriors–the Mike Pences and Franklin Grahams of the world–and come to the conclusion that Christianity (and for that matter, all religion) is a poorly-veiled effort by self-righteous prigs to control and dominate others.

And yet….

We need to recognize that even those of us who are nonbelievers are nevertheless  products of specific religious cultures, and consider the ways in which our early socialization into those cultures have shaped the attitudes with which we approach issues of justice and human behavior. (Pardon the shameful plug, but I wrote a book–God and Country: America in Red and Blue– about the ways in which those unrecognized religious roots influence Americans’ positions on ostensibly secular policies from economics and criminal justice to the environment.)

Religion was initially a way to explain an inexplicable world–especially why some people prospered and others suffered. Different religious traditions approached these questions differently, and when humans invented science, some embraced the “new learning” and some rejected it.

That leads me to an utterly banal observation: some approaches to religious belief encourage people to live together amicably, and some do not. My own unoriginal rule of thumb is based entirely upon the behavior of purportedly religious folks. If your religion makes you more compassionate and kind, if it provides you with a helpful (but not unduly prescriptive) framework within which to approach moral dilemmas, it’s probably good.

If it turns you into a self-righteous moral scold, it probably isn’t.

I came across a far more eloquent version of my approach on Phil Gulley’s blog. Gulley, as many readers know, is a Quaker pastor and author from a small community near Indianapolis. The post in question was his response to a mean-spirited cartoon by Gary Varvel, who is a longtime cartoonist (and inexplicably, recently a columnist) for the Indianapolis Star. The cartoon, which portrayed Judge Kavanaugh’s accuser as a demanding publicity seeker, is reproduced on Gulley’s blog.

The Star evidently refused to print Gulley’s response, saying that the newspaper had already apologized for printing the cartoon. (A number of people canceled their subscriptions, citing it, and I can see why the paper might prefer not to call any further attention to it.) That’s a pity, though, because Gulley has captured the distinction between religious beliefs that prompt humility and self-examination and those that serve as a substitute for self-awareness and as a crutch for judgmentalism.

You really need to read the entire post, but here are the paragraphs that illustrate that distinction:

I’ve known Gary Varvel most of my life. We were raised in the same small town and have many friends in common. We embraced the Christian faith around the same time. I once believed as he still does. But his faith has taken him places I cannot go, embracing causes I cannot support. To be fair, he likely says the same thing about my faith. Gary has often said his faith informs everything he does. I believe him, which is why I reject his faith, or at least his version of Christianity, which always comes at the expense of others, be they women, or gays, or liberals, or any “others” whose demands for justice challenge its narrow and settled world.

I have never wanted anyone to lose his or her job. It has happened to me twice, and each time was painful and difficult. While I have never wanted anyone to be fired, I have often wished those who neglect the hard work of self-awareness and self-improvement would retire, or perhaps find another line of work that doesn’t involve shaping, or misshaping, public opinion. That is my wish for Gary, to retire and spend time learning the world his wife, daughter, and granddaughters inhabit, a world far different from his own.

Amen.

 

The God Squad In The Courts

Rewire has a feature called “Gavel Drop,” with brief descriptions of recent lawsuits involving religion and the First Amendment, and providing links to longer descriptions of the parties and issues involved. This particular issue highlights the current (sad) state of “faith-based” America.

Allow me to share a few of the featured entries.

The Alliance Defending Freedom is now arguing in federal court to allow homeless shelters to deny services for transgender people. Downtown Soup Kitchen in Anchorage, Alaska, filed the religious freedom lawsuit against Anchorage earlier this year over the city’s nondiscrimination law; a case had been filed against the center after it denied a transgender woman admission to its shelter. The shelter director said that the woman was denied because she appeared drunk, but also that it would never accept a “biological man.”

In the linked article describing the lawsuit, ThinkProgress points out that ADF’s claim for relief  isn’t simply a request to allow this particular discriminatory act; it is a demand that the court overturn the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance in its entirety. It’s part and parcel of the Christian Right’s persistent attacks on any and all LGBTQ protections, in the name of “religious liberty.”

If a homeless transgender woman has to be thrown out into the cold Alaskan street in order to show proper deference to the religious sensibilities of the “Christians” who run the shelter, well, those are the breaks.

Speaking of religious liberty, the Gavel Drop also reported on this lawsuit from Illinois.

Illinois’ Fourth District Appellate Court upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit challenging a state law that provides funding to Medicaid and state employee health insurance plans that cover abortion services. Anti-abortion groups, represented by the Thomas More Society, are planning to appeal the case to the Illinois Supreme Court.

I note that, for these “good Christians,” religious liberty goes only one way: their way. Adherents of religions that permit abortion are to be denied the liberty to follow their beliefs.

Nothing more clearly demonstrates the hypocrisy of the “religious freedom” movement as piously promoted by people like Mike Pence and organizations like ADF and the Thomas More Society than this insistence that “liberty” means their right to have government impose their beliefs on everyone else.

The theologies of these “Christian” plaintiffs prohibit abortion (for them and for any of their neighbors); but those theologies evidently do allow flat-out lying in service of their “godly” goals. Their argument against the law included the repeated accusation that the measure promoted taxpayer-funded abortion services.

“Taxpayer-funded abortion” is a myth pedaled by abortion-rights foes that feeds on public ignorance about abortion funding. Two-thirds of the public is unaware the federal Hyde Amendment prohibits paying for abortions with federal Medicaid dollars, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

Also among the lawsuits listed in the Gavel Drop was yet another effort to have government endorse Christianity by displaying a cross on public property.

The city of Pensacola, Florida, is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and allow a large memorial cross to remain standing on public land in Bayview Park. Earlier this month, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court judge’s ruling that displaying the cross on publicly owned land violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The city of Pensacola is represented by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

These public monument cases are brought repeatedly, and just as repeatedly dismissed under a long line of precedents invoking the Establishment Clause. Not only do I fail to see how moving the cross to private property violates anyone’s  “liberty,” I fail to understand why the Christian Right is so dead-set on having the government endorse their brand of religion.

Okay, that’s a lie. I do understand.

They’re theocrats, just like the Taliban. They want government to post their symbols in order to remind the rest of us that this is their country, and the rest of us are just here by virtue of their forbearance.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I really get tired of these people.

The Enemy Of My Enemy…

E.J. Dionne had an interesting column in the Washington Post a few days ago.

He was analyzing the relationship that has recently been uncovered between Russia and the American Right–not just the NRA (fascinating as THAT is) but also the Evangelical Christian community. There’s been a lot of focus on that community’s support of Trump, but very little commentary on its seemingly bizarre relationship with Russian operatives.

In truth, there is nothing illogical about the ideological collusion that is shaking our political system. If the old Soviet Union was the linchpin of the Communist International, Putin’s Russia is creating a new Reactionary International built around nationalism, a critique of modernity and a disdain for liberal democracy. Its central mission includes wrecking the Western alliance and the European Union by undermining a shared commitment to democratic values.

I think that one key to the referenced “disdain” for liberal democracy is resistance to the “liberal” part–not to liberal politics as we understand that term today (although the Right opposes that liberalism too), but resentment of the 18th Century liberal restraints on what the majority can vote to have government require of everyone else. In other words, the limits on majoritarianism imposed by the Bill of Rights. But I digress.

Dionne notes that Putin’s affinity toward the far right makes sense, because his power rests on a nationalism rooted in Russian traditionalism.

And the right in both Europe and the United States has responded. Long before Russia’s efforts to elect Trump in the 2016 election became a major public issue, Putin was currying favor with the American gun lobby, Christian conservatives and Republican politicians.

In a prescient March 2017 article in Time magazine, Alex Altman and Elizabeth Dias detailed Russia’s “new alliances with leading U.S. evangelicals, lawmakers and powerful interest groups like the NRA.”

I thought the most telling paragraph in the column was Dionne’s explanation of the Evangelical/Russia bond.

Evangelical Christians, they noted, found common ground with Putin, a strong foe of LGBTQ rights, on the basis of “Moscow’s nationalist and ultraconservative push — led by the Russian Orthodox Church — to make the post-Soviet nation a bulwark of Christianity amid the increasing secularization of the West.”

There’s an old saying to the effect that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” I have never understood fundamentalist Christians’ seething hatred for the gay community–as many pastors have noted, the one (incessantly recited) bible passage about a man lying with another man is vastly outnumbered by the biblical admonitions they cheerfully ignore about feeding the poor and helping the widow and orphan, etc.

It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that these Evangelicals use the Bible the way a drunk uses a street lamp–for support rather than illumination.

Be that as it may, evidently all Putin had to do too woo Evangelicals was discriminate against the people they’d love to oppress if only that pesky Bill of Rights and old-fashioned American notions about civil equality didn’t get in their way…

The deepening ties between the Russian government and elements of the right should give pause to all conservatives whose first commitment is to democratic life. The willingness of traditionalists and gun fanatics to cultivate ties with a Russian dictator speaks of a profound alienation among many on the right from core Western values — the very values that most conservatives extol.

Of course, the people who support Trump and are willing to get in bed with Putin (and I mean that in the most heterosexual possible way!) aren’t genuine conservatives. They have no discernible political philosophy–just a deep-seated resentment for people unlike themselves, and a well-founded fear that the dominance they once enjoyed is rapidly evaporating.

 

The White Nationalist Party

America has been transfixed by Donald Trump’s very public betrayal of his oath of office–an oath which requires him to protect and defend our country. But that is hardly his only  betrayal of important American values.

As Dana Milbank reminds us, he has made bigotry politically correct again.

In a recent column, Milbank looked at the crop of Republican candidates who  surfaced after Trump’s election.

Behold, a new breed of Republican for the Trump era.

Seth Grossman won the Republican primary last month for a competitive House seat in New Jersey, running on the message “Support Trump/Make America Great Again.” The National Republican Congressional Committee endorsed him.

Then, a video surfaced, courtesy of American Bridge, a Democratic PAC, of Grossman saying “the whole idea of diversity is a bunch of crap.” Grossman then proclaimed diversity “evil.” CNN uncovered previous instances of Grossman calling Kwanzaa a “phony holiday” created by “black racists,” labeling Islam a cancer and saying faithful Muslims cannot be good Americans.

There was much more, and the GOP finally withdrew its endorsement. But Grossman is hardly an aberration.

Many such characters have crawled out from under rocks and onto Republican ballots in 2018: A candidate with ties to white nationalists is the GOP Senate nominee in Virginia (and has President Trump’s endorsement); an anti-Semite and Holocaust denier is the Republican candidate in a California House race; a prominent neo-Nazi won the GOP nomination in an Illinois House race; and overt racists are in Republican primaries across the country.

Milbank points to what has become increasingly obvious: As nice people flee the GOP, Trump’s Republican party now needs the support of people like this.

Some of these candidates go well beyond the bounds of anything Trump has said or done, but many have been inspired or emboldened by him. Corey A. Stewart, the Republican Senate nominee in Virginia, said he was “Trump before Trump.”

The party won’t back Stewart, but Republican lawmakers are tiptoeing. Rep. Scott W. Taylor (R-Va.), declining to disavow Stewart, noted to the Virginian-Pilot newspaper that people won’t see him as racist because “my son is named after a black guy.”

If there were only a few of these racists and anti-Semites, you might shrug it off. After all, both parties have had crazy or hateful people run for office (we’ve had some doozies here). They’ve usually been weeded out in party primaries, and they’ve rarely earned official support or endorsement.

In today’s GOP, however, they seem to be everywhere.

Russell Walker, Republican nominee for a North Carolina state House seat, is a white supremacist whose personal website is “littered with the n-word” and states that Jews are “satanic,” Vox reports.

Running in the Republican primary for Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s congressional seat in Wisconsin is Paul Nehlen, who calls himself “pro-white” and was booted from Twitter for racism.

Neo-NaziPatrick Little ran as a Republican in the California Senate primary, blaming his loss on fraud by “Jewish supremacists,” according to the website Right Wing Watch.

In North Carolina, nominee Mark Harris, in the NRCC’s “Young Guns” program for top recruits, has suggested that women who pursue careers and independence do not “live out and fulfill God’s design.”

Another Young Guns candidate, Wendy Rogersof Arizona (where Joe Arpaio is fighting for the Republican Senate nomination), has said the Democratic position on abortion is “very much like the Holocaust” and the Cambodian genocide.

As Milbank notes–with examples– these candidates have plenty of role models in the administration and in Congress.  Plus, of course, the role-model-in-chief.

Thanks to Trump, today’s GOP is rapidly becoming America’s White Supremicist Party.