Tag Archives: religious liberty

Liberty Or Favoritism?

As we wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide another religious liberty case–this time, concerning the constitutional propriety of a 40-foot cross in Maryland–it might be helpful to revisit the origins of the competing definitions of “liberty” that are at the heart of so many of these cases.

We are told that the colonists who originally settled in what is now the United States came to the new world for religious liberty. And that’s right; they did. But their view of religious liberty was that it was “freedom to do the right thing.” And that involved establishing colonies where the government would make sure that everyone did “the right thing.”

Around 150 years later, George Washington became the first President of a country founded upon a very different understanding of liberty. Liberty was conceived of as freedom to do your own thing, so long as you did not thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as you were willing to accord an equal right to others.

What had changed the definition of liberty? The scientific and intellectual movement we call the Enlightenment, which had occurred in the interim between the original Puritans and the Revolutionary War.

The U.S. Constitution may have been based upon the definition that emerged from the Enlightenment, but America still is home to lots of Puritans. And their “sincere belief” is that liberty means the government should be able to impose–or at least, privilege– their religion.

An editorial in The New York Times explains the case currently pending before the Court:

This week’s hearing, in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, involved a 40-foot cross in Bladensburg, Md., that was erected 93 years ago to honor fallen World War I soldiers. The question before the court: Is Maryland in violation of the First Amendment because the memorial is on public property and maintained with public funds?

There would be no constitutional violation if the cross were on private property. The issue is government endorsement of religion, which is prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The editorial notes that there is considerable confusion about the application of the Establishment Clause to public monuments.

Lower court judges are confused about how to apply the Supreme Court’s dictates in this area of the law, so more clarity from the high court — if not a definitive, bright-line rule — is in order.

Alas, such clarity doesn’t seem to be on the horizon. After Wednesday’s hearing, the court seems poised to allow the cross — which otherwise bears no religious inscriptions — to stay. But the justices don’t appear to be any closer to consensus on this issue than they’ve ever been.

“I mean, it is the foremost symbol of Christianity, isn’t it?” Justice Elena Kagan asked at Wednesday’s session. “It invokes the central theological claim of Christianity, that Jesus Christ, the son of God, died on the cross for humanity’s sins and that he rose from the dead. This is why Christians use crosses as a way to memorialize the dead.”

Justice Stephen Breyer, who in the past has wrestledwith the Constitution’s religion clauses, pondered whether “history counts” when assessing a monument’s legality. Maybe older displays, erected when the nation wasn’t nearly as religiously diverse, should be allowed, he suggested. “We’re a different country,” Justice Breyer said. “We are a different country now, and there are 50 more different religions.”

Not surprisingly, the Trump Administration–which wasn’t a party to the case and need not have offered an opinion–weighed in on the side of those who want the cross to remain.

The editorial concluded:

With its recent rulings, the Supreme Court has only muddied the separation between church and state by taking seriously religious objections to contraception, civil rights laws and the allocation of public funds. It is hard to fathom the justices being nearly as accommodating with a publicly funded monument to atheism or a Wiccan pentagram. And last month, the court couldn’t even agree that a Muslim death-row prisoner from Alabama deserved the same rights as Christians in his final moments.

However the justices resolve this the dispute, they would be wise to not sow more confusion in this area of the law and feed the perception that only certain religions and practices get a fair shake in public life.

When those “certain religions” are privileged, equality before the law takes a hit.

 

‘Sincere Religious Beliefs’ And Lynching

Perhaps I’m just allowing my foul mood over the current state of America’s federal government color my reaction to everything, but I am over demands that laws of general application make exceptions for people acting on the basis of “sincere religious belief.”

If I have a “sincere belief” that my God wants me to offer up my newborn as a sacrifice, should I be exempt from punishment? What if I have a “sincere belief” that paying taxes enables governments’ evil behaviors–can I simply refuse to do so?

If–as I assume–the answer to these and similar questions is:  “hell, no,” why are Americans so solicitous of the “sincere beliefs” of fundamentalists?

The U.S. Senate just unanimously passed a bill that would make lynching a federal hate crime—but now the religious right is trying to exclude victims who are targeted for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In remarks that are making national headlines, the chairman of Liberty Counsel, an anti-gay hate group that purports to speak for Christians, says the inclusion of LGBT people is a “camel [getting] in the nose of the tent.”

His argument is absurd, but it could make a difference: Liberty Counsel has helped pioneer bigoted “religious freedom” arguments by representing clients like Kim Davis. Its opposition could be influential among congressional Republicans.

The quoted description is taken from a mainstream Christian religious site, Faithful America, which describes itself as an online community of Christians putting faith into action for social justice by (among other things) challenging the “hijacking” of Christianity by the religious right to serve a hateful political agenda.

It has been gratifying to see religious voices raised in opposition to the theocratic right, a development that has been gaining ground over the past several years; it would be considerably more gratifying if the courts stopped coddling people who demand that their beliefs be given priority over the rights of citizens whose beliefs differ. Why in the world should the fringe theology of Hobby Lobby’s owners entitle them to refuse coverage of birth control for employees whose beliefs differ?

The courts wouldn’t allow Hobby Lobby or other corporate owners of entirely secular businesses to hire and fire employees based upon their willingness to accept the owners’ religions–why are they so solicitous of the “offense” posed by inclusive health coverage?

It’s likely that even most Republicans in Congress will find Liberty Counsel’s objection to inclusive language in the anti-lynching bill sufficiently outrageous to ignore it, but we make a mistake if we think the Council represents just a few nutcases on the right. Theological justifications for bigotry are more widespread than reasonable people want to believe, and most of these bigots are entirely “sincere.”

If I “sincerely” believe that the God I worship wants “your kind” wiped off the face of the earth, and I act upon that belief, my “sincerity” wouldn’t–and shouldn’t– protect me from the legal consequences of that action.

Fundamentalists to the contrary, religious liberty is not the liberty to impose their version of Christianity on everyone else, or to insist that the law bend to their “sincerity.”

I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means….

I wonder what theocrats think the word “liberty” means?

I guess we’re going to find out. According to Vox and a number of other media outlets,

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a “Religious Liberty Task Force” that will enforce a 2017 DOJ memo ordering federal agencies to take the broadest possible interpretation of “religious liberty” when enforcing federal laws. That memo, for example, prohibits the IRS from threatening the tax-exempt status of any religious organization that actively lobbied on behalf of a political candidatewhich is not allowed under the Johnson Amendment.

In a bold speech delivered at the Justice Department’s Religious Liberty Summit, Sessions characterized the task force as a necessary step in facing down the prevailing forces of secularism. “A dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom,” he said, which “must be confronted and defeated.”

I don’t think I’d call the speech “bold.” “Ignorant” might be a more appropriate adjective.

Secularism, properly understood, is simply the absence of religion–an absence which evidently constitutes an existential threat to the worldview of people like Sessions. And liberty, at least as defined by those who drafted the U.S. Constitution, definitely does not mean the privileging of Christianity and its adherents over all other belief systems, religious or secular, which is quite clearly what Sessions intends.

While the task force will only enforce the guidelines listed by the religious liberty memo, the language in Sessions’s speech was as significant as the creation of the task force itself. Using striking rhetoric and the incendiary narrative of culture wars, Sessions characterized America as an implicitly Christian nation under attack from secularists. In so doing, he is continuing a wider pattern of the Trump administration: treating the federal government as a necessary participant in the longevity of Christian America.

He’s advocating for the kind of Christian nationalism — blending patriotism and evangelical Christianity — that the administration has consistently used to legitimize its aims and shore up its evangelical base.

As the Vox article noted, over the past few years Sessions’ version of “liberty” has gained considerable legal ground–from the Hobby Lobby decision, allowing closely-held corporations with religious shareholders to deny contraception coverage to its employees, to the case of Trinity Church, in which the Court held that a Lutheran church could use taxpayer funds to build a playground on its property. The confirmation of Kavanaugh would likely carve another hole in the wall of church-state separation.

It is obvious that this task force and various other efforts to take America back for (their version of) Jesus have been prompted by fury over civil rights for LGBTQ folks–especially recognition of same-sex marriage–and hysteria over the growing recognition that White Christian cultural domination of America is on the way out.

I’m not going to waste pixels on the fundamentalists who use religion as a justification for their bigotry and who experience any loss of privilege as discrimination. But I am going to protest the misuse of language.

In America, the word “liberty” means “personal autonomy”–an individual’s right to self-government. Liberty means we each have the right to “do our own thing” so long as we do not thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as we are willing to accord an equal right to others. It most definitely does not mean (as the theocrats would have it) an obligation to do the “right thing” as that “right thing” is defined by the theology of the majority and enforced by government.

The First Amendment protects the integrity of the individual conscience against government overreach, and together with the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, it prohibits government from favoring some religious beliefs over others, or from favoring religion over non-religion. (Or vice versa, for that matter.)

The fact that we have an administration filled with people who reject that understanding of liberty—who are dismissive of the most basic premises of America’s history, philosophy and law–is more than unfortunate. It’s scandalous.

Or to coin a phrase, deplorable.

 

 

 

Confirmation: It Isn’t About Religion

The Indianapolis Star, in one of its increasingly rare forays into what used to be called “news,” reported on a very interesting study investigating popular opinion about the pending Supreme Court case brought by a baker who refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple.

As most of you are aware, the baker–routinely described as very pious–has argued that forcing him to sell one of his cakes to a same-sex couples would not only violate his religious liberty, but would amount to “compelled speech.” That is, he argues that civil rights laws requiring him to do business with people he considers immoral are really compelling him to affirm his approval of that immorality.

The free speech argument appears to be a fallback, in case the Supreme Court doesn’t buy the religious liberty one. In any event, most people who are aware of the controversy see the conflict as one pitting respect for “sincere religious belief” against the rights of LGBTQ citizens to be free of discrimination.

As the study found, it really isn’t.

I vividly recall a conversation I had many years ago with a friend I knew to be a truly nice person. He wasn’t a bigot. I was Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU at the time, and he understood the organization to be a defender of individual liberty and the proposition that the power of government (and popular majorities) to prescribe our behaviors is limited by the Bill of Rights.

He wanted to know why the ACLU didn’t think civil rights laws violated individual liberty.  Doesn’t “freedom” include the freedom to discriminate?

The study cited by the Star confirms the continued salience of his long-ago question.

People who believe businesses should be able to deny services to same-sex couples aren’t necessarily citing religious reasons for discriminating, a new study by Indiana University sociologists has found.

Instead, many simply believe businesses should be able to deny services to whomever they want — even though that violates civil rights laws that protect certain classes of people….

Slightly more than half of those surveyed said they supported a business denying wedding services to a same-sex couple, whether the business cited religious opposition to same-sex marriage or non-religious reasons.

Ninety percent of self-identified Republicans said that businesses should be able to choose who they do business with.

I’ve been in these discussions, and more often than not, people who believe civil rights laws deprive them of their liberty will say something like: “what about those signs that say ‘no shoes, no shirt, no service?” or “the government shouldn’t make the kosher butcher sell ham,” or “what if a Nazi asked the baker for a swastika cake?”

I will restrain myself from launching into one of my “civic ignorance” diatribes, and merely point out that civil rights laws do not deprive merchants of their liberty to refuse service based upon a customer’s behavior. Merchants also retain the liberty to decide what goods they will sell (if a menswear store refuses to stock dresses for sale to a female customer, that doesn’t violate anyone’s civil rights.)

Civil rights laws prohibit discrimination based upon the identity of customers who are members of legally specified classes. (FYI: Nazis aren’t a protected class.)

Do those laws curtail a merchant’s “liberty” to discriminate? Yes. So do laws prohibiting religious parents from “whipping the devil” out of their children, and a variety of other “sincere” behaviors deemed damaging or dangerous to society.

Here’s the deal–the “social contract.”

When a merchant opens a shop on a public street, he depends upon local police and firefighters to protect his property. He depends upon government to maintain the streets and sidewalks that allow customers to access his store, and the roads, railways and air lanes that carry his merchandise from the manufacturer to his shelves. In return for those and other public services that make it possible for him to conduct his business, government expects him to pay his taxes, and obey applicable laws–including civil rights laws that protect historically marginalized groups against his disdain.

The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker retain their liberty to advertise that disdain. They retain the liberty to lobby for repeal of civil rights laws. They retain the right to exclude people they consider immoral or unpleasant or just “different” from their social gatherings, their churches and their homes.

As I’ve often said, if you don’t like gay people, you don’t have to invite them to dinner. You just have to take their money when it’s proffered in a commercial transaction.Is that really an intolerable invasion of your liberty?

Religious Liberty And the Marketplace

Most of us have heard the military admonition against “fighting the last war.” The point is obvious: generals and political actors need to evaluate and respond to the reality in which they live; getting stuck in the past–fighting the last war– is a formula for failure.That admonition also suggests one way of analyzing America’s current political situation.

Much of our contemporary political and cultural polarization is between people I have previously described as Puritans and those I have dubbed Modernists.

America’s Puritans still see liberty as “freedom to do the right thing,” defined as behavior consistent with their particular theology. They still believe, with the earliest American settlers, that government should have the authority to weigh in on the side of “Godliness” as their theology conceives it.

Modernists–in and out of religious communities–accept the post-Enlightenment notion that liberty means personal autonomy, your right to do your own thing, so long as you aren’t harming anyone else and so long as you are willing to grant an equal right to your fellow citizens.

The shorthand for modernism is “live and let live.”

Conflicts over recognition of same-sex marriage and bathroom use by transgender individuals, and efforts to allow “religious” merchants to refuse service to LGBTQ customers are really conflicts between America’s Puritans and its Modernists. Puritans  believe that government should throw its weight behind their theological beliefs; Modernists understand the importance of separating church and state, of preventing  particularized religious doctrines from marginalizing or disadvantaging otherwise law-abiding citizens.

Even in the churches, the Modernists are winning. As the Religion News Service reports,

In no U.S. religious group does a majority think it’s acceptable for businesspeople to invoke their religious beliefs to refuse service to gays.

This finding from a 2016 Public Religion Research Institute survey is a first, said Robert P. Jones, CEO of the nonprofit research group.

The change in opinion among even conservative religious adherents has been relatively rapid:  In 2015, more than half of white evangelical Protestants and Mormons surveyed approved of merchants who cited religious belief to deny service to LGBT customers; in the 2016 survey, the percentage of white evangelical Protestants who expressed approval had dropped to 50% from  56% the year before.

The percentage of white mainline Protestants who approved of businesspeople who withhold services to gay people dropped to 30 percent in the recent poll, down from 37 percent in 2015.

Overall in 2016, twice as many Americans disapproved than approved of those who refuse service to a gay person based on religious beliefs (61 percent to 30 percent).

PRRI’s findings corroborate a more dramatic overall shift in attitudes about same-sex marriage and LBGT Americans in the past decade.

Most religious groups today support same-sex marriage, Jones noted. “The religious groups in which majorities oppose same-sex marriage make up less than 20 percent of the public.”

Despite the diminishing number of Puritans, state and federal legislators continue to support discriminatory measures aimed at the LGBTQ community, just as they continue to support a variety of measures disadvantaging women–all piously justified as “protecting religious liberty.”

They are fighting the last war. And thankfully, they’re losing.