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Government was withdrawn from matters the Founders believed should properly be the purview of churches and individual consciences.–This decision was based upon respect for individual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.