Tag Archives: Free Exercise

Revisiting “Religious Freedom”–Again

When Indiana went through the “great RFRA battle,” the focus of the arguments pro and con centered on the law’s impact on LGBTQ citizens .The measure was seen as an effort to legitimize discrimination against the gay community (and as a defiant response to the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision), since that was transparently the intent of its supporters.

But the law was not limited to matters of sexuality.

A more recent assertion of religious liberty–and the question of the degree to which RFRA protects that liberty over and above the requirements of the Free Exercise Clause–illustrates the more fundamental and wide-ranging conflict between the rights of individuals who are acting on the basis of their religious beliefs, and the duty of government to act on behalf of the public good.

An Indianapolis woman who severely beat her seven-year-old son with a coat hanger is defending her actions as “biblical.”

30-year old Kin Park Thaing is a good Christian woman who feared for her son’s salvation when the 7-year old allegedly engaged in what she says was dangerous behavior that would have harmed his 3-year old sister. So she beat him with a plastic coat hanger to save his soul and teach him how Jesus wants him to behave. She is fully within her right to do so, based on her deeply held religious beliefs, under Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), her attorney is arguing in Marion Superior Court before Judge Kurt Eisgruber.

“I was worried for my son’s salvation with God after he dies,” Thaing, a Burmese refugee here under political asylum, says in court documents, according to the Indianapolis Star. “I decided to punish my son to prevent him from hurting my daughter and to help him learn how to behave as God would want him to.”

Unfortunately, we live in an era that doesn’t “do” nuance, doesn’t recognize complexity and rarely engages with the genuinely difficult questions that arise in diverse societies when government tries to respect everyone’s individual rights–the right of religious people to live in accordance with their sincerely held beliefs, and the right of others not to be victimized by those beliefs. So we are unlikely to engage the really hard questions.

When does protection of religious liberty function to privilege certain people and their beliefs to the detriment of those with different (or no) faith commitments? What sorts of harms may government forbid, even when those harms are inflicted by sincerely religious people?

If the welts and bruises inflicted by this mother had been the result of a temper tantrum or a drunken rage, she would clearly be guilty of child abuse. Does her religious motivation insulate her from legal sanction? If so, who protects that child from further, possibly more serious harm?

The First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause protects the rights of Americans to believe anything, but it has never been interpreted to allow citizens to act on the basis of those beliefs if such action would violate otherwise valid laws of general application.

If your assertion of religious liberty requires harming someone else, or denying them rights  or protections to which they are otherwise entitled, surely RFRA doesn’t prevent government from intervening.

But that, evidently, is the argument. [To be continued…]

 

The Right to be Wrong

[This post should really be about Dallas and the two horrific incidents preceding and triggering what happened there. It isn’t, because I am still processing it all. I find myself unable to put my reactions into words right now. Those words will come, but not yet.]

The Des Moines Register recently reported on lawsuits brought against the state and city by churches challenging recent interpretations of Iowa civil rights laws to prohibit church members from making “any public comments — including from the pulpit — that could be viewed as unwelcome to people who do not identify with their biological sex.”

They [the churches] said they are asking the commission to declare that Iowans have a right to speak from church pulpits about biblical teachings on sexuality. The Sioux City church also wants a declaration that Iowa churches are free to follow their religious doctrines in how they accommodate people in restrooms, locker rooms and living facilities.

Unless there is something I’m missing, the actions of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission violate the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. (According to the article, the Commission is evidently denying that the churches are “bona fide” religious organizations–a fairly bizarre position.)

We live in a time of social change. Greater acceptance of LGBT citizens, especially, has led to all sorts of debates about “religious liberty.” (We’ve seen this movie before; in the past, merchants and landlords have claimed “religious liberty” entitled them to refuse service to African-Americans, Catholics and Jews.)

As I have written before, government has the right–indeed, the obligation–to prohibit discrimination in housing, education, employment and public accommodations.

That said, churches and other genuinely religious institutions are not public accommodations, and their right to preach as they see fit, to take positions on public issues informed by their doctrine, is protected by the First Amendment. I might believe–as I wholeheartedly do–that these church folks are wrong about homosexuality (and actually, about a lot of other things) but they have an absolute Constitutional right to their beliefs. They have a right to preach about those beliefs, and to conduct their congregational affairs in a manner that is consistent with their religious doctrines.

It’s particularly unfortunate that the Iowa Civil Rights Commission has taken the position that it can suppress the churches’ religious message, because that position feeds into entirely bogus assertions made by proponents of so-called “Religious Liberty” laws. The Eric Millers and Micah Clarks of this world insist that “secular activists” will force pastors to conduct same-sex weddings, or will outlaw preaching against homosexuality. Constitutional lawyers respond–properly–that churches and pastors are protected against such efforts by the First Amendment.

Overreaching in Iowa just supplies ammunition to those who want laws giving them a wide-ranging right to discriminate. The churches that brought these lawsuits should win–demonstrating that RFRAs and similar measures are unnecessary because the Constitution already protects religious expression.