Religious Rights And Privileges

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Government was withdrawn from matters the Founders believed should properly be the purview of churches and individual consciences.–This decision was based upon respect for individual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


  1. This just infuriates me! When ACTUAL Christians are doing actual CHRIST-LIKE THINGS, such as loving the stranger that dwells in your land, or caring for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned, well, the Government couldn’t care less! But, have “sincerely held religious beliefs™” – you can get away with anything.

  2. Good PEOPLE do good things.
    Bad people do bad things
    Pretending it is directed by a higher power is just bull
    Some people are just shitty human beings
    They seem to be Republican Trump type people
    Ignore their holy books – look at who they are and what they do
    Awful people. Awful

  3. #MAGA

    I hope the brown skin progressives win their elections this Fall and begin installing Sharia Law in the government. Oh wait, they know better.

    Don’t forget, the Idiot Frontier believes Muslims are conspiring to take over the USA. This stems from the Trump’s birther movement who honestly believed Obama was working with the Muslim Brotherhood to install a Muslim friendly government which wanted to kill off Christians.

    You must understand why these ridiculous conspiracies came to fruition. The Donor Class needs voters because they are in the minority and their only hope is divide and conquer. Most Americans if given the facts can make reasonable decisions and wouldn’t vote against their own survival or best interests. Why would any reasonable worker in 2018 vote for low wages, high educational bills, and even higher medical bills?

    ML posted this little nugget yesterday, “‘Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.’”

    The Donor Class uses irrational fears to separate the working class so they’ll fight against one another. Race, sex, religion…all on the table. Think Civil War…how did the Plantation owners convince white southerners to wage war against their northern cousins so the Oligarchs could keep slaves?

    The Koch’s and Exxon can’t tell folks to vote Republican so they can be more profitable even though it is causing premature death for the elderly and young Americans. Voters would protest.

    So, they must manipulate using irrational human fears (public relations or propaganda).

    And as ML points out, manipulation (oppression) targets “unconscious people.”

  4. Oh my; this blog will certainly stir up some arguments as well as questions regarding “facts” in some publications and Supreme Court decisions.

    My first question, only to get it out of the way,is; are all of those hundreds who die of thirst and heat in our Sonoran Desert illegal immigrants or are there some “innocent” American citizens among them who are there through circumstance? Just askin’

    About those believing a person’s sex is “fixed” at birth, are they aware that this actually happens at inception when or if the male sperm contains that “Y” chromosome to release which decides the male gender? Otherwise; all remain female gender.

    “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.”

    Pence’s “religion” is the Republican party which has become evangelical at its base to “excuse” its racism, sexism and religious bigotry which allows them to make their beliefs, law.

    “Genuinely religious folks should be outraged by this appropriation of their beliefs for transparently political purposes. Unfortunately, the loudest voices coming from “faith communities” tend to be the least genuine.”

    These current “faith communities” are supported by the 1% or 2% vast wealth who continue their tithe to allow Republicans to increase their vast wealth “in the name of God and all that is holy”. They are the “moneychangers in the temples” who need to be driven out.

    Narrowing the scope of the issue today to the coming appointment of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States of America; can the Republican Senate Judicial Committee name one instance of Catholic – or any religious denomination – evidenced in any or all of the Kavanaugh hearings responses or demeanor to qualify him with their current evangelical “leadership” to this lofty position of power?


  5. “Significant numbers of Americans reject the Constitutional separation of church and state.”

    This is because their seditious and subversive churches tell them to. It’s still just about power.

  6. One of the anomalies that I run into regularly on Facebook are people who claim to be strict Constitutionalists yet are against many of the fundamental tenets of liberal democracy that our Contitution defined.

    Of course they want the Second Amendment interpreted to mean not as it was written but permitting all individuals to arm themselves with machines that efffectively kill as many targets at distances as the finest of military weapons do. The want the First to honor Christianity because some forms of it believe God has appointed them to make reproductive choices for women and they can label “liberals” as hypocrites who want to save gun victims but kill fetuses. Of course interpretations like that are not about freedom at all but the power to impose what’s preferable to them on everyone.

  7. “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.”

    Splendid observation, but there is nothing “conservative” about this agenda. Try “fascist”.

  8. It’s hard to express how disgusted I am by the false piety of these professional Christians.

    But I cannot keep the grammar Nazi in me quiet. In your first paragraph, did you really have to use the word “evidence” as a verb?

  9. Unitarian Universalists( I am one) have often been on the front line of social justice issues. We support the separation of religion and government. I am a registered nurse. One of my heroes is Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. She worked as a nurse on the front lines of the civil war and cared for soldiers in the Union and Confederate army. She was a Universalist Christian. Talk about being nonpartisan! Neither side imprisoned her.

  10. Pascal
    Did it with the word “privilege” in the same paragraph, too. Just like Hoosier-Speak.

  11. Jane

    You nailed it. Nothing infuriates “good Christians” as much as people who actually do Christ-like things. How dare they!


    “Pence’s “religion” is the Republican party which has become evangelical at its base to “excuse” its racism, sexism and religious bigotry which allows them to make their beliefs, law. ”

    Bravo! You nailed it.

    And to Todd’s points: It has been the modus operandi of the wealthy to keep poor whites/blacks/Hispanics at each other’s throat quibbling over crumbs rather than standing up to their real enemies–the rich–since the country began. See Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States or Nancy Isenbergs’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America among others.

    (Editorial note: Isenberg’s use of “America” to describe the U.S. is one of those little things that sticks in my craw. “America” is the entirety of the land from Alaska/Canada to the tip of Chile–not the United States. Perhaps a small thing to some, but it galls me in its arrogance.)

    BTW I Have been reading Vernon Turner’s Racing to the Brink: The End Game for Race and Capitalism. Good stuff, Vernon!

    Finally, returning to Jane: Those doggone Unitarians are going to give “good Christians” a bad name by doing all those humanitarian things. All I can say is, “Thank you!”

  12. Authoritarian Religion depends upon and yes demands strict absolute loyalty to it’s dogmas. When “witnessing” or persuasion is not enough the Authoritarian Religion’s will use or attempt to use the power of the state to further their version of the “righteous path”. The “prosperity gospel” will explain to the Proles why they live life on the economic edge.

    As Todd mentioned above: “The Donor Class uses irrational fears to separate the working class so they’ll fight against one another. Race, sex, religion…all on the table.”

    I read an interesting article during the 2016 primaries. Some in the 1% Donor Class could take liberal stances on social issues such as same sex marriage, civil rights, woman’s rights etc. Others in the 1% donor class are silent on social issues.

    What does unite our Oligarchs – 1% -Donor Class is their love of money and power. How do you maintain power when the 1% are clearly out numbered? You triangulate, you accentuate the differences and sort people into concrete silos and without letup keep reinforcing these differences. The last thing the Oligarchs want is for the Proles to see them as the enemy.

    Gave credit where credit is due, President Agent Orange a member of 1%-Oligarch Class has exploited these silos to the maximum. President Agent Orange has managed to convince his Trumpter’s he is a self made man, when the total opposite is true, he inherited his wealth. Pastor Pence was necessary piece so President Agent Orange could gather in the bible thumper’s.

    As I quoted yesterday from George Orwell – ‘Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.’

  13. I was just reading in Black’s Law Dictionary this morning in the text of the Constitution. “No law regarding the establishment of a religion…” I have though on this many times: 1. Does it in fact say that government shall have no regard for the establishments of religion? 2. Does it say that government has no say in any establishing of a religion? 3. Is that regarding a national declaration of a religion in prominence in this country? 4. Does this preclude the United States Government from prescribing the do’s and don’t’s of religion – or any legal conflicts with local, state, and national laws? This is an important issue in our day. I do not take it the responsibility of any ‘minister, priest, or imam or rabbi,’ to have the room to preach political thought or philosophy from a lecture or what have you! That is ‘as a minister!’ But as we see now in our day once again – religion goes before the fall. Next we have what in line: An American POPE? Perhaps an American version of a Bishop of Canterbury? or some Hack Protestant wanna be Pastor of the Nation? oh 0h I have it – the ELDER IN CHIEF!!! Yes I am spewing vitriol – and why not? The false morality in this nation makes me sick. If any of these people would have met ‘G-d’ they wouldn’t crawl out of the cave they came from! And that is fact. Do you realize just a few short 3 years ago there was a Pew Research survey that indicated that fully 49% of those asked believed in a 7 day creation of the Universe. AND fully 70 or more percent believed in a ‘virgin birth’? My bet is that it is higher … in 2018. And that is really SAD.

  14. Rev. Manuel; I was thinking on my morning walk about the Bible and the how, where, why, when and who of its many author’s sources. One conclusion I came to regarding the males who authored it and how they may have reached their conclusions is based on the times they lived in. It is a known fact that fasting and dehydration can cause hallucinations; doubtful they had balanced diets or always access to water, then there is the knowledge that wine seemed to always be available. Just some thoughts; I have for years looked at the majority of Bible stories in the same genre as Fairy Tales, Indian Lore and Greek Mythology…it certainly is not a textbook to be used as a reference guide. My conclusions do not mean I have given up on faith, belief in a higher power or spirituality; simply some thoughts about the creation of the Bible vs. creation of mankind and this world we live in. I can’t believe all of this came about spontaneously.


  15. Pew Research:
    Of all the major religious groups in the U.S., evangelical Protestants are among the most likely to reject evolution. According to the Center’s Religious Landscape Study, a solid majority (57%) of evangelicals say humans and other living things have always existed in their present form.

    Those who affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention (58%) and the Seventh-day Adventist church (67%) reject the idea that human beings evolved over time.

    98% of scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science say they believe humans evolved over time.
    It is vital that the bible thumper’s reject evolution. Evolution, does not require supernatural intervention. Supernatural intervention is at the core of the bible thumper’s belief system. The bible thumper’s believe they are on a conference call from God, that only the “saved” can hear.

  16. JoAnn @ 11:35 am, you may want to look into books by Bart D. Ehrman, per WIKI > is an American New Testament scholar focusing on textual criticism of the New Testament, the historical Jesus, and the development of early Christianity. He has written and edited 30 books, including three college textbooks. He has also authored six New York Times bestsellers. He is currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

    In Misquoting Jesus Ehrman recounts becoming a born-again, fundamentalist Christian as a teenager. He recounts being certain in his youthful enthusiasm that God had inspired the wording of the Bible and protected its texts from all error. His desire to understand the original words of the Bible led him to the study of ancient languages and to textual criticism. During his graduate studies, however, he became convinced that there are contradictions and discrepancies in the biblical manuscripts that could not be harmonized or reconciled. He remained a liberal Christian for 15 years but later became an agnostic atheist after struggling with the philosophical problems of evil and suffering

  17. There’s a meme (accurately, according to Snopes) quoting Howard Stern as saying “I have vowed I will never vote for a Democrat again. I don’t give a [expletive] no matter who they are. I don’t care if God becomes a Democrat.” Now Howard Stern is many things but I can’t quite picture him as an evangelical Christian. But I find it quite plausible that evangelicals could find it within themselves to do exactly that – vote against their own god for not agreeing with them.

    It’s like the subtle but important difference between “God is on our side” and “We are on God’s side” – who is the leader and who is the follower?

  18. JoAnn

    Your thoughts are good ones. I have always maintained that the bible is a book that must be understood in its proper frame of reference. In this regard it is no different than science, and just as scientific theories have had to change over time the biblical interpretations must also. “Literalists,” though they may claim the bible is word-for-word true would recoil in horror if the bible were applied literally. They use their claims to prop up their prejudice, not because they truly believe the entire bible.

    Keep on thinking!

    BTW I do disagree somewhat with Monotonous’ take on Erhman. He makes some good points but it has become his mission to discredit all things Christian and he is hardly an unbiased source.

  19. Wray; thanks for understanding what I was trying to say. While attending a well-to-do, all white Baptist church years ago, I joined a Bible study class. Week after week we were told every word in the Bible is to be taken literally and believed as gospel; when I asked what the 12th Chapter of Numbers meant – literally – I was told it is a parable. Evidently the only parable to be found in the Bible to explain their all white congregation. The leader also said that not all Ethiopians were Black; further justification.

    An interesting video post on Facebook today; the Republican candidate for governor called on an 18 year old girl to ask her question. She questioned his views on Climate Change, which he said was caused by body heat, and how did he justify accepting $200,000 from fossil fuel corporations. He said she was too young to understand. Where do these people come from; is there a Biblical explanation?


  20. JoAnn

    The biblical and real-world explanation is simply this–there are a whole lot of people who are not motivated by truth or doing good. They have their nickels in the game and they are not going to ever admit to being wrong if it costs them anything.

    Unfortunately greed is a mighty motivator, and capitalism is the highest form of that greed. That is why it must always be tempered with compassion–otherwise known as social programs or socialism. Of course that inspires fear in capitalists.

  21. Jo Ann at 7:22am:
    As someone who has lived in Tucson, AZ (approximately 70 miles from the Mexican boarder with the U.S.), since 2011.

    The NO MORE DEATH organization and volunteers (Locally, in addition to Unitarians, at least one south side Tucson Presbyterian congregation is very active in the organization and has offered sanctuary to migrants) are often in the local news.

    As was the case earlier this year, when the Border Patrol staked out a suspected No More Deaths established “humanitarian aid” station near Ajo, a small town about 150 miles south west of Tucson on the Tohono O’odham Reservation. The agents observed (through night vision devices) a No More Deaths volunteer, Scott Warren, providing food, water, and temporary shelter to two illegal immigrants. Warren was arrested and charged in Federal Court with two counts of Harboring Illegal Immigrants and one count of human-smuggling conspiracy.

    Prior to the Trump presidency, the Border Patrol, for the most part, made no attempt to arrest or harass the No More Death Volunteers, and would merely content themselves with arresting the illegal immigrants. No More Deaths and other volunteer groups also leave water bottles and barrels for the migrants at strategic locations on known smuggling routes in the desert. Before Trump, Border Patrol left those watering stations alone. Post-Trump, agents have been captured on video dumping out the water and destroying the water barrels and bottles.

    But to answer your question, I’ve never heard of any U.S. citizens being among the corpses and skeletons found dead in the desert. Even though the bodies are usually found on known smuggling routes or corridors, these are in really remote and isolated areas, and their bodies often are not found and recovered for a long time. When the bodies are found, there is an effort made to identify them, and if possible, return the remains to the families. But many go unidentified.

  22. David F; thank you for your enlightening information about that wonderful group of humanitarian volunteers. They are endangering their own lives to save others.

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