Category Archives: Religious Liberty

Arrogant Virtue

Andrew Sullivan recently shared the following quote from Reinhold Niebuhr’s postwar book, The Irony of History.

“We … as all ‘God-fearing’ men of all ages, are never safe against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire. …There is…the necessity of living in a dimension of meaning in which the urgencies of the struggle are subordinated to a sense of awe before the vastness of the historical drama in which we are jointly involved; to a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of its perplexities…

.. if we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”

Among other things, the excerpt reminded me of Learned Hand’s famous observation that “the spirit of liberty is the spirit that’s not too certain it’s right.”

In God and Country, I noted that America remains deeply divided between contemporary descendants of the early Puritans, on the one hand, and those I call Modernists, whose worldviews are rooted in the Enlightenment, on the other. Puritans define liberty as freedom to do the “right” thing, the thing that God wants. And what God wants (as Niebuhr noted) is–coincidentally–exactly what those self-same “God-fearing men” want.

Puritans believe that government has an obligation to enforce “God’s commands,” which they alone understand.

The American legal structure, however, is not a product of the Puritans who came to these shores for the “liberty” to worship the “right” God and the “liberty” to punish or expel those who differed. Established some 150 years after the Puritans first landed, our government began with a very different definition of liberty: freedom to live your own life as you see fit, free of government interference, so long as you don’t thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as you are willing to grant an equal liberty to others. Consistent with these caveats, the Bill of Rights ultimately boils down to “live and let live.”

These very different worldviews divide us still.

In the kneejerk reactions to LGBT progress—especially the rush to legislate “religious liberty” exemptions from civil rights laws—we see the Puritans, furiously fighting back against modern life.

In Michigan, a bill recently passed by their House of Representatives would “limit governmental action that substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion,” by allowing or disallowing “an act or refusal to act, that is substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious belief, whether or not compelled by or central to a system of religious belief.”

In other words, if you are a pharmacist who doesn’t want to fill prescriptions for birth control or antiretrovirals, if you own a bakery and don’t want to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, or if you are an EMT reluctant to treat gay patients, you can cite your “sincerely held religious belief” (no matter how idiosyncratic) to justify noncompliance with legal and/or professional obligations.

I think these laws are what Nieburh meant by “blindness induced by hatred and vainglory.”

The zealots who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center were undoubtedly motivated by “sincere” religious beliefs. The homegrown terrorists who gun down abortion doctors are motivated by “sincere” religious beliefs.

In a society where my (arrogantly held) sincere belief is different from your (equally arrogant) equally “sincere” belief, government cannot and should not privilege either of us.

‘Tis the Season…for Culture War Stupidity

According to the Christian Science Monitor,

Wishing students “Merry Christmas” is now protected in Texas public schools thanks to a recently minted Merry Christmas law, which allows students, teachers, and administrators to say traditional holiday greetings on campus….

The bill, signed into law last year by Gov. Rick Perry, allows religious scenes and symbols, like a nativity or Christmas tree, to be displayed on school property. It also allows schools to teach about religious holidays, including their history, and include religious references and music in school performances.

Well, isn’t that special?

Can we deconstruct this embarrassing piece of theater? To the extent this measure purports to allow things that would violate the Establishment Clause, it is totally ineffective. (There’s this pesky little thing about the U.S. Constitution–it trumps local laws.) Christmas trees are fine, but nativity scenes (unless surrounded by symbols of Chanukah and Kwanzaa and other artifacts of winter’s seasonal celebrations) remain legally off-limits.

To the extent this law is inconsistent with the Establishment Clause, it is null and void. But more to the point, everything else “protected” by this legislative display of civic ignorance is already protected by the Free Exercise Clause. 

Teachers can already teach about religion, religious holidays, and the role of religion in history. Music teachers and art teachers are free to include religious music and art in their lessons–indeed, it would be difficult to introduce students to either discipline without recognizing the role religion has played in the evolution of those arts. (Granted, a “Christmas Chorale” composed exclusively of devotional hymns–no “Frosty the Snowman” or “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” to leaven the religiosity –is unlikely to pass Constitutional muster, but otherwise, no problem.)

Excuse me, but…those of you who are ostentatiously wearing the label “Christian”–can we talk?

I am getting really, really tired of your whining, tired of your petulant assertions that if you  can’t force everyone else to acknowledge your beliefs (in language that you deem appropriate) and genuflect to your observances (in recognition of their superiority), you’re being picked on.

Read my lips: There is no “War” against Christmas. Nice people wishing you a happy holiday are not trying to destroy the country and/or deprive you of your cultural heritage. They are just being nice. They are being thoughtful. Respectful of others.

You might try that sometime.

You might try acting….oh, what’s the word? Christian.


Excuse Me? What’s a “For Profit” Church?

A couple of weeks ago, the local news reported on a gathering of anti-gay activists protesting Indiana’s recognition of same-sex marriage. It was a small crowd (probably since people who understand how court rulings operate realized that a protest couldn’t/wouldn’t change anything), and I just skimmed the description of attendees.

Then I stopped. Read it again.

Among the participants listed were “Pastors of several For Profit Churches.” My husband’s snark when I read that description to him was “Aren’t they all?” (Yes, I know that blanket condemnation is unfair.)

I’d never heard of churches established to be for-profit enterprises. When I consulted Doctor Google, there were links to a number of articles advising churches on methods for establishing for-profit subsidiaries, and many more detailing the financial shenanigans of churches from “Mega” to storefront–but nothing about churches actually established as “for profit” entities.

The classification of a church as “nonprofit” or “for profit” has obvious tax and constitutional consequences. Traditional churches can claim certain exemptions from civil rights laws, for example, under the Free Exercise Clause. Whether a “for profit” church could do so is–so far as I know–an unanswered question.

A couple of months ago, there was a case involving a wedding chapel in Las Vegas that wanted to refuse service to LGBT customers. The owners claimed a religious liberty exemption from applicable civil rights laws. As I recall, the fact that the wedding chapel was a for-profit business meant that the exemption didn’t apply.

When you think about it, admittedly for-profit churches sort of give “coming out” a whole new meaning….



This Makes Me Very Uncomfortable

File this one under there’s a right way and a wrong way to get to a desirable result.

A federal district court in Oregon has declared Secular Humanism a religion, paving the way for the non-theistic community to obtain the same legal rights as groups such as Christianity.

ThinkProgress quoted Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain on the decision. “I really don’t care if Humanism is called a religion or not, but if you’re going to give special rights to religions, then you have to give them to Humanism as well, and I think that’s what this case was about.”

I agree that Humanism deserves equal status with religion under the law. But the First Amendment requires neutrality; it doesn’t simply require equal treatment of religions, it forbids government from privileging religion over non-religion.

Here’s the danger I see in achieving parity by labeling humanism as just another religion: for years, religious literalists have pushed for “equal treatment” in science classes, arguing that secular humanism is a religion, that it is being privileged, that fundamentalist Christianity should be entitled to “equal time,” and so creationism should be taught in science classes. Up until this point, federal courts have refused to take that bait, properly noting that secularism is the absence of religion, and that it would be improper to teach religion in public school science classes.

Science is not a matter of faith, or belief. It is a method, an approach to determining the nature of empirical reality. Science cannot explain everything–it is limited to areas that can be falsified–and there are multiple aspects of human existence where faith or ideology  has a role to play. But drawing that line between matters of fact and opinion is only muddled by confusing a non-theist philosophy with religion. (I know there are non-theistic religions, but in those cases–Buddhism, etc.–their adherents claim the label.)

Courts struggled with the definition of religion in cases involving conscientious objectors, but finally recognized that sincere pacifism should entitle someone to claim that status whether or not that pacifism stems from a “recognized” (established?) religion or not. Similarly, the Oregon court could have–should have–found Humanists entitled to equal treatment for purposes of the prison program at issue under well-settled Establishment law principles.

I hope I’m wrong, but this “win” has the potential to be a real loss. How you get to a result is every bit as important as the result itself. Sometimes more so.

J.D. Ford, Mike Delph and the Social Contract

At a recent candidate forum, J.D. Ford–who is running against Mike Delph–made what should have been one of those “duh, yeah, we learned that in high school civics” observations: when businesses open their doors to the public, that constitutes an obligation to serve all members of that public.

There is a reciprocal relationship–a social contract– between business and government. The government (which collects taxes from everyone in its jurisdiction, no matter their race, religion or sexual orientation) uses those tax dollars to provide services. Those services are an essential infrastructure for the American businesses that must ship goods over publicly-financed roads, depend upon police and fire departments for safety, and (in some cities, at least) public transportation to bring workers and customers to their premises.

As Ford noted, business that want to discriminate– who want to pick and choose which members of the public they will serve–are violating that social contract. They want the services that are supported by the tax dollars of all segments of the public, but they don’t want to live up to their end of the bargain.

Where Ford (and I) see fundamental fairness, Mike Delph (surprise, surprise!) sees religious intolerance.

“I was saddened to hear him express such intolerance for those of us that hold deep religious conviction,” Delph told The Star. “Religious liberty is a fundamental American ideal.”

Let’s call this the bull*** that it is.

If your religious beliefs preclude you from doing business with gays, or Jews, or blacks, then don’t open a retail establishment. Don’t enter into a contract knowing that you will not honor its terms.

Religious liberty allows you to hold any beliefs you want. It allows you to preach those beliefs in the streets, and to refuse to socialize with people of whom you disapprove. You have the right to observe the rules of your particular religion in your home and church, and the government cannot interfere. But when you use religious beliefs–no matter how sincere–to disadvantage people who are entitled to expect equal treatment, when you use those beliefs as an excuse not to uphold your end of the social contract, that’s a bridge too far.

Mike Delph wants a government that favors (certain) religious beliefs, and gives adherents of (certain) religions a “pass” when they don’t follow the rules that apply to all of us.

I want Mike Delph out of Indiana government.