Freedom to Oppress

A week or so ago, I shared the questions on my Law and Policy take-home final, and a couple of commenters wondered whether I would share student responses.

Although I won’t share others, I was struck by one student’s essay on the second question, which involved the principle of religious liberty. The question read:

The First Amendment protects religious liberty. Over the past few years, Americans have engaged in heated public debates about the nature and extent of that liberty. Some people argue that requiring employers to provide health insurance that includes contraception, or requiring businesses like florists or bakers to serve same-sex customers, is a violation of the religious liberty of those whose religions teach that contraception or homosexuality is a sin. Others disagree. What is the proper definition of “religious liberty”—that is, how far should the free exercise of religion extend in America’s diverse religious landscape? What religiously-motivated actions can government legitimately limit, and what are the justifications for those limits?

This student suggested that many people confuse “freedom” with “freedom to oppress,” and went on to explain the difference.

I hadn’t seen it phrased quite that way before, but I think he’s on to something.

I thought about his essay when I read in the Washington Post that Vice-President Mike Pence had told participants at a World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians in D.C. that “no other faith group faces more persecution than Christians,” and lauded Trump’s recent RFRA-like Executive Order.

Mike Pence shares a definition of “persecution” with other fundamentalist believers that beautifully illustrates my student’s observation: “persecution” in Pence-speak goes well beyond the actual mistreatment of Christians abroad; for him, “persecution” has always included the inability to use the coercive power of the state to impose his particular version of Christianity on others here at home.

Think of the horrors: the nasty courts have prevented public schools from requiring (Christian) prayer in classrooms occupied by children of diverse faiths, and have upheld the teaching of science, rather than the Christian doctrine of Creationism, in public school science classes.

Those same courts have required government to recognize marriages by sinful same-sex couples  (who can now file joint tax returns, just like real married couples), and they’ve insisted that when retail establishments open for business, they actually do business with anyone willing to pay for their merchandise.

These “persecuted” Christians must live under a legal regime that accords Jews and Muslims and Hindus and atheists the same civil rights that bible-believing Christians have! A society where stores like Target can allow transgendered people use the bathroom when nature calls! A society that allows women to follow their own religious and moral beliefs about reproduction, rather than the Word Of God as Revealed to Mike Pence and his fellow fundamentalists.

I’m sure it is only by the grace of their God that these poor, persecuted Christians can continue to live here.

I would completely understand if they moved en masse to somewhere like Ghana or Uganda, where the government understands the threat posed by homosexuality and uppity women. But of course, the inhabitants of those countries are black, and a lot of  Pence Christians aren’t too sure God likes black people…


  1. “What is the proper definition of “religious liberty”—that is, how far should the free exercise of religion extend in America’s diverse religious landscape? ”

    Wow; this is a student with the ability to seek answers “outside the box”, the boxed-in, one-size-fits-all Pence version of Christianity. The women I know who used or use birth control, including myself, were and are members of or believers in various religions, including Christianity. The same holds true for my gay and lesbian friends who are subjected to Pence’s – and now Trump’s – RFRA law allowing only specific “Christians” freedom to practice their religious beliefs while denying those Americans who believe in and practice other “diverse religions” can be denied their rights as Americans. I cannot and will not leave out agnostics or Atheists; all religions are belief systems, agnosticism and Atheism are also belief systems; they are also American citizens.

    The same question can and must be applied today regarding the Trump/Pence & Co. version of Republicanism. The current Republican party cannot seem to separate their politics from their religion. Only those whose beliefs support their personal political views and personally based laws – and firings – will benefit by their convoluted, pseudo religious “deconstruction” of democracy and the looming possibility of repealing the Constitution. I question this suddenly planned trip by Trump to Saudi Arabia, et al, with his earlier planned trip to Israel looming amid his possibility of impeachment, is he fleeing the country to avoid direct contact with his mounting list of problems?

  2. After reading today’s blog I added a wish to the top of my Bucket List:

    I would like to be seated front and center at a debate between Sheila Kennedy and Mike Pence regarding religious freedom and persecution in our country.

    Sheila, you obviously have very bright students in your class. Thank you for sharing this student’s thoughts.

  3. Great column, as always. And a thinking student, that’s even better.

    I must take issue with the phrase that Creationism is a Christian concept. It is a concept that some Christian denominations have drawn from a literal reading of Genesis. But, not all Christian denominations promote/believe in Creationism. My understanding of the teachings of the Catholic Church, for one, does not see a conflict between the Bible and science; religion and science address two different aspects of human existence.

  4. Everybody ‘sins’. Why does one religious group get to claim high moral ground if they all do it? Religion belongs in it’s churches not public life, not public schools, not in our government.

  5. Saint Vincent and Saint Rembrandt and Saint Da Vinci all told me that visual artists like me are the chosen people and should always go to the front of the line, get the best interest rates, and never have to deal with red states. As I understand our Constitution, I am free to BELIEVE my religious revelations and engage in whatever rituals that trumpet my beliefs but am not free to act on my delusions in ways that depreciate the rights of others or require others to even respect my “special enlightenment”, beyond granting me the freedom to believe that due to the voices in my head, or the voices in the head of my artistic ancestors, that I am so very, very special.

  6. I wonder if any student who adequately defended the alternate position would be praised for their well-reasoned response!

  7. No presidential order, Supreme Court edict or congressional statute can mix oil and water, and religion and government are oil and water. Irrespecitve of Hobby Lobby and other such pretexts that religious beliefs have been shorted, I expect to see another court in another time reject this amalgamation of church and state. For instance, what if I were an atheist and denied service to religious customers on grounds that doing business with such people violated my constitutional rights to not believe? Where do such contorted fact situations end? Oil and water do not mix in spite of Supreme Court tinkering, presidential order or congressional statute. The Constitution is our rule and guide in governmental matters, not the bible or the torah. Each has its place but each should stay in its place.

  8. Ken, what is the alternative position? In my mind it’s theocracy which is extremely easy to prosecute just based on mankind’s actual experience with it.

    I can’t think of a single society that’s benefited from it because freedom it all is freedom for all and mankind is diverse when it comes to Faith.

    Government favoring some over others based on Faith is enslaving.

  9. Impeachment is being talked about. That would replace a man who used one expression of the followers of Jesus to win the his election but who doesn’t know Jesus, with a man who renounced one authoritarian expression of churchism, Roman Catholicism, for another authoritarian form of faith, one distinct form of evangelicalism. Pence, with most of his life spent learning how to exist as a political creature, is prepared to impose his particular form of religious oppression. One wonders if Trump is tutored daily by Pence. What do we wish for: three plus years of Pencian religious bigotry on steroids promoting a deadly form of corporate capitalism, or the latter promoted by a religious illiterate?

  10. Mark, you are right about the Catholic Church. From Wiki > Georges Lemaître, 17 July 1894 – 20 June 1966) was a Belgian Catholic Priest, astronomer and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Leuven. Lemaître also proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, which he called his “hypothesis of the primeval atom” or the “Cosmic Egg”.

    Pope Pius XII declared that Lemaître’s theory provided a scientific validation for Catholicism. However, Lemaître resented the Pope’s proclamation, stating that the theory was neutral and there was neither a connection nor a contradiction between his religion and his theory.

    He died on 20 June 1966, shortly after having learned of the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation, which provided further evidence for his proposal about the birth of the universe.
    A few years ago I listened in as Biblical Literal types discussed human appearance on earth, convinced it happened in the last 10,000 years. They flat out denied the science of archeology and carbon dating, that contradicted their belief in the young humans. I did not bother to offer an opinion as to my firm conviction based on the science they rejected that evolution was a fact.

  11. What if we allow Texas to secede from the United States? Then we could pay their expenses to move there. They could raise the confederate flag, have all the guns they want, have fundamentalist Christian prayer in their publicly funded charter schools, deny health care to their poor people, and deny the existence of climate change. They could establish their long-desired Christian theocracy, and only fundamentalist men would serve in their government. We could even build a wall around it!

  12. Here is a story of my one and only experience with evangelical beliefs.

    Several years ago I was given an opportunity to go on one of my church’s bus trips to Cincinnati. The trip was free, so I decided to go. At that time, I was not aware that we would also be stopping at the Creation Museum in Kentucky.

    I was not in that museum very long before I started feeling terribly uneasy and I actually felt what I would describe as an almost evil presence inside that building. I decided that I must exit to the outdoors to escape that feeling. It was simply a gut feeling after viewing a movie and then walking through hallways that had pictures and descriptions of their view of the beginning.

    Once I was outside I felt fine. I noticed a few others that were on the trip who were already outside. We had all experienced the same feeling and felt the need to escape.

    Has anyone else been to that ‘museum’? If so, what are your thoughts about it?

  13. I just wanted to say that your speech posted yesterday was outstanding. Well done Professor.

  14. Greetings Ken. There is no adequate response to the alternate position!
    Irvin BAA 🙂

  15. I’ve never been to that museum. I suggest you had a strong dissonance between your beliefs and their strong brainwashing. I don’t have a problem with Creationism and Evolution. Creationism shouldn’t be taught as science. I told our kids you can believe both. What I have a problem with is people trying to force their beliefs on someone. I did it as a young person.
    The thing that set me off, one of the things is that poorly written series of novels, LEFT BEHIND by Jenkins and LaHaye. They also have a series for kids. I read one of them and was so offended that I complained to the librarians. An editor friend said they were horror novels. If Pence tries to control libraries I may run away.

  16. Greetings Marge. Very good. Here is my question. Where should creationism be taught?
    Irvin BAA 🙂

  17. Marge, a former relative tried to get me to read the Left Behind series of books. I looked them up on the internet and after reading what they were about I knew that I wanted nothing to do with them. Years later she recognized how awful they are and that it is a form of brainwashing.

  18. Hi, Nancy,
    I haven’t been to the Creation Museum but had read about it prior to its opening. I was curious how it could effectively improve the poetry of Genesis. I decided that it’s probably a good place for unimaginative dyslectic Pence-voting parents to take their children so they could get their minds f*cked the “right Pence” way before Hollywood and our evil society f*cks their minds the “wrong” way. Now, of course, FOX and Trump/Pence are “FOX-ing” the kids who are hurredly parent-corralled around the TV as we used to gather around the radio to hear “our Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia” read aloud the funny sheets when the print press was on strike and when we heard our President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Freedom FROM Fear” before I headed off to war. This nostalgia eases my neuralgia as it did in the forties when Hitler’s insanity commanded the airways. GOP please keep it up; show us how puffed up you are with power. You are dooming yourselves. We Americans “get it”. Much printer’s ink and blood will be spilled before this “Nazi Mein Kampf Trumpf-Pencef” ends.

  19. The Puritans fled religious oppression and when they’d been here for awhile, they oppressed those whose religious views differed from theirs. Your student captured it so well. Freedom of religion does not mean freedom to impose your religious beliefs on anyone else.

    Several year ago, Indiana’s state legislature tried to pass legislation to mandate teaching of values in our public schools. The legislative effort ultimated failed over the inclusion of ‘tolerance’ as one of those values. Too many legislators could not tolerate the teaching of tolerance for fear that might include tolerance for ‘homosexuals’, evolution, religions other than Christianity, and God knows what else. I’m not at all sure “freedom of religion” could muster a majority in our state legislature.

  20. Sorry for the typo. It should have read …the legislative effort ULTIMATELY failed…

  21. Don’t know how to answer question on where to teach creationism. Most people who teach it in home schools or private schools. I’m 77 and things have changed a lot. Actually I told our kids I believed in theistic evolution. Our youngest said he didn’t think about it much. We didn’t home school but we talked a lot. I told the kids that the first four books of Genesis was for people who couldn’t read and stories were handed down. There’s two Creation stories.
    I don’t believe the earth was created in 4004BC like some people do.
    You want a thesis? Creationism can be taught in schools who include it in the curriculum or at home. Or it could be taught in comparative literature. I generally avoid people who believe in the Usher explanation (4004 BC).

  22. With more churches dotting the American landscape than any other country in the world, with a large Mega majority of elected officials professing to be Christians, from God Bless America our 2nd national anthem to In God We Trust on our money all directly associated with the Christian Religion involvement, I believe it would be hard for a court of law to show discrimination aginst any Christian group in our nation, but By God they try to do just that everyday in America.
    Our most important freedom in America should be the freedom from religion not the freedom of religion.

  23. If one has a business such as bakery ,florist , or whatever. And it is independently owned, why wouldn’t that person have the authority to determine who they wish to serve. If Muslim man should wish a Christian architect to design and build a mosque , would he be obligated to?

  24. Robin; to answer your first question, any business which opens its door to the public either serves the general public, which includes other races, religions and sexual orientation who are all part of the public, or they become a private organization, opening its doors only to their selected membership. Costco and Sam’s Club could begin cherry picking customers as they require dues paying membership to shop in their businesses.

    The government at all levels “own” our public streets, highways, sidewalks, bridges, sewer systems, etc. and are responsible for maintenace; once they receive our tax dollars it obviously is “their money” to do with at it pleases. Today this includes ignoring the dangerous conditions of all infrastructure and spending “their” money elsewhere. Will the current Republican administration claim “full ownership” of the infrastructure and allow Donald to decide who in this country will be allowed to use it? That could be in our future; Hitler accomplished it during WWII with his “final solution”, the Holocaust. I had a neighbor years ago who actually believed her taxes paid for the street section in front of her home and informed all neighbors we could not drive or walk on her property. My neighbor across the street and I bargained with her; explaining that our section of privately owned street, at the entrance of the only way in or out, and her husband could not go to work, she could not cross it to shop and her children could not access OUR street to get and from school. She agreed to our “deal”; she probably voted for Trump as she is of the mindset of his supporters. And the mindset of Pence using his private religious beliefs to enact laws. Congress and the GOP are dealing with Trump the way my “good” neighbor and I dealt with the fool and paved (pardon the pun) way to neighborhood peace.

    Your second question is confusing, at least to me. Why would the Muslim be “obligated” to hire the Christian he “wishes” to hire?

  25. I meant would the Christian, atheist , or whatever be obligated to design a mosque when it may be against his wishes?

  26. I get they’re homophobic & possibly sexist but why bring up racism? Pence hasn’t said or did anything to suggest in his years of public office that he could be a racist. Seems like you’re grasping at straws to find a reason to hate fundamentalists, how petty!

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