Category Archives: Religious Liberty

Quasi-Church And State

When does a political ideology become a religion–or a political nonprofit a church?

Those questions weren’t uncommon back in the days of the “evil empire,” when a number of pundits suggested that the fervor of communists and fellow-travelers was indistinguishable from that of devout religious believers. When the world became less bipolar–when there was no longer a single, global menace (or savior)– those comparisons also faded away, but the underlying issue remains.

Now, with a new twist.

Is a religion any belief system characterized by an accepted dogma? Wikipedia defines dogma as “a belief or set of beliefs that is accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted,” and goes on to note that It may be in the form of an “official system of principles or doctrines of a religion” –and may also be “found in political belief-systems, such as Marxism, communism, capitalism, progressivism, liberalism, conservatism, and fascism.”

Belief in a deity characterizes some, but certainly not all religions, so that “marker” isn’t dispositive.

If a political ideology is indistinguishable from a religion, what are the consequences for a legal system that separates church from state?

That is just one of the questions that arises from a recent trend reported by Pro Publica— a growing number of right-wing political entities have been petitioning the IRS to declare them churches.  That status allows such organizations to shield themselves from financial scrutiny, which is undoubtedly the prime (and arguably corrupt) motivation. The article focused on the Family Research Council (FRC), a rightwing think-tank

The Family Research Council’s multimillion-dollar headquarters sit on G Street in Washington, D.C., just steps from the U.S. Capitol and the White House, a spot ideally situated for its work as a right-wing policy think tank and political pressure group.

From its perch at the heart of the nation’s capital, the FRC has pushed for legislation banning gender-affirming surgery; filed amicus briefs supporting the overturning of Roe v. Wade; and advocated for religious exemptions to civil rights laws. Its longtime head, a former state lawmaker and ordained minister named Tony Perkins, claims credit for pushing the Republican platform rightward over the past two decades.

What is the FRC? Its website sums up the answer to this question in 63 words: “A nonprofit research and educational organization dedicated to articulating and advancing a family-centered philosophy of public life. In addition to providing policy research and analysis for the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government, FRC seeks to inform the news media, the academic community, business leaders, and the general public about family issues that affect the nation from a biblical worldview.”

In the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service, though, it is also a church, with Perkins as its religious leader.

There are advantages to this change in status. Since the FRC was classified as a church (in 2020), it no longer had to file a public tax return, known as a Form 990. Form 990s list the salaries of key staffers, the names of board members and the identities of related organizations.  They also contain information about any large payments to independent contractors and any grants the organization has made. And as the article notes, “Unlike with other charities, IRS investigators can’t initiate an audit on a church unless a high-level Treasury Department official has approved the investigation.”

Very convenient. And not, evidently, an anomaly. FRC’s former parent organization, Focus on the Family, became a church for tax purposes in 2016.

In a statement, the organization said it made the switch largely out of concern for donor privacy, noting that many groups like it have made the same change. Many of them claim they operated in practice as churches or associations of churches all along.

FRC has defended the status change as a protection of its “religious liberty” rights, and noted that Treasury Department rules exempt church organizations from the mandatory coverage requirements for contraceptives. They can also discriminate with impunity–refusing to hire women or LGBTQ citizens.

I’m sure that delights them.

The article identified a rogues’ gallery of extremist rightwing organizations that have chosen to identify themselves to the IRS as churches, and noted that the IRS has been inexcusably lax in determining whether those organizations actually meet the agency’s own definition of a church.

Forgive me if I’m being dense here, but if these organizations are churches, can’t the IRS enforce the Johnson Amendment–the rule that prohibits churches from engaging in nakedly political activity–and strip them of their tax-exempt status? (If any of my readers are tax lawyers, please weigh in…)  FRC pretends that an affiliated entity is responsible for its direct political activities, but that entity apparently has no employees.

At this point, the various “churches” of Theocracy-R-Us are having it both ways.


Whose Religious Liberty?

Well, finally! A lawsuit just filed in Florida raises an important and far too frequently ignored aspect of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. What happens when “religious liberty” becomes a code word meaning “Liberty for my particular religion’s doctrine, but not for yours?”

The Supreme Court majority that (according to the leaked draft opinion) will overturn Roe v. Wade within the next few weeks is composed of Catholics who have been very vocal about the importance of protecting religious liberty–as they evidently define it. The problem is, their definition of liberty differs from that held by a very large number of Americans who believe that all citizens are free to follow the doctrines of their particular religions. When applied to the issue of abortion, for example, people whose beliefs prohibit it are protected from measures requiring it, and people whose beliefs allow (or even, in some situations, require) it can follow their beliefs.

In other words, if your beliefs prohibit abortion, you don’t have to have one. If they don’t, you can.

That definition of religious liberty is at the heart of the lawsuit filed in Florida. According to the Religion News Service, 

A new Florida law prohibiting abortion after 15 weeks with some exceptions violates religious freedom rights of Jews in addition to the state constitution’s privacy protections, a synagogue claims in a lawsuit.

The lawsuit filed by the Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor of Boynton Beach contends the law that takes effect July 1 violates Jewish teachings, which state abortion “is required if necessary to protect the health, mental or physical well-being of the woman” and for other reasons.

“As such, the act prohibits Jewish women from practicing their faith free of government intrusion and this violates their privacy rights and religious freedom,” says the lawsuit, filed last week in Leon County Circuit Court.

The lawsuit adds that people who “do not share the religious views reflected in the act will suffer” and that it “threatens the Jewish people by imposing the laws of other religions upon Jews.”

The new Florida law has exceptions only for terminations necessary to save the life of the mother or prevent serious injury, or for a fetus with a fatal abnormality. It does not contain exemptions for pregnancies resulting from rape, incest or human trafficking.

The Rabbi of the synagogue that filed the lawsuit was quoted as saying that when separation of religion and government crumbles, religious minorities often suffer. And he noted that DeSantis had signed the law at an evangelical Christian church.

This lawsuit is yet another illustration of an element of the expected decision that has received far too little attention: it goes to the very heart of current constitutional jurisprudence, which is concerned with drawing a line between those matters that government can properly regulate and those that are to be left to the individual. Reversal of Roe attacks the conceptual underpinning of a doctrine known as “substantive due process,” which is focused on where that line must be drawn, and the very simple–and very profound–question: who decides?

In a free country–a country that takes liberty seriously–who gets to decide what prayer you say, what book you read, who you marry, whether and when you procreate?

For the past fifty years, with some hiccups, American law has answered that question by respecting the rights of individuals and religious communities to determine those and similarly personal issues–issues that the Court has dubbed “intimate”–for themselves. I would argue that the right to make our own personal, medical, political and religious decisions in the exercise of our individual consciences is the proper definition of liberty.

(Decisions to forego mask wearing and other decisions that endanger others, not so much.)

America is currently going through a wrenching transition. Religious and racial groups that were once so dominant that minority communities and their beliefs were (at best) marginalized and ignored are losing their cultural dominance, and many members of those groups are hysterical about it. Others are simply clueless–so insulated within traditional ways of understanding the society they inhabit that they are unable to understand the claims of those who differ–as Jewish law differs from much of Christianity on the issue of abortion.

“Freedom for me, but not for thee” isn’t freedom at all. It’s privilege, and privileges can be withdrawn. What’s that observation we civil libertarians love to quote? “Poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.”

Either religious liberty is liberty for adherents of all religions, or it isn’t liberty at all. This lawsuit illustrates the danger of letting government make decisions that favor the doctrines of some religions to the detriment of others.


Don’t Just Take It From Me

Several readers have shared a recent, stunning post from Pastor John Pavlovitz. I’ve been a fan of Pastor Pavlovitz, although not a regular reader–Facebook friends pretty regularly share his online “sermons.”  After reading them, I usually think how nice it would be if all self-identified Christians were like him–you know, really Christian. ( I revisited that thought after reading the revelations about sexual abuse in Evangelical churches…)

At any rate, I’m ceding my space today to his message, because–like those who sent it to me–I think it is important to hear it from someone with first-hand knowledge and an “insider’s” perspective.


I’ve been a pastor in the church for over two decades, much of that in predominantly white churches in the American South.

I’ve spent countless hours in church staff meetings and men’s Bible studies and youth pastor conferences.

I’ve stayed connected on social media with thousands of people still there in those churches. I read what they share and post and amplify and I know how they think and what they believe.

I need you to understand something and I say it without any hyperbole: white Evangelicals need to be stopped, now.

If the 2022 midterms elections allow Republicans to gain control of Congress, Conservative Christians will decimate this nation, and LGBTQ people, Muslims, women, people of color, and non-Christians will never have equality under the law again. We will all be at their mercy—and they will no longer have use for mercy.

This is not alarmist, sky-is-falling histrionics, it is the clear and sober forecast from someone who knows these people better than anyone. Over the last decade and a half, as my theology shifted and my beliefs grew more and more progressive, I’ve been a kind of undercover Liberal in an increasingly extremist movement, that while once relegated to minor fringe noisemakers is now at the precipice of Roman Empire-level power. They are less than two years away from having a dominance that they will wield violently and not relinquish.

I watched it all unfold from the inside:

I was at a North Carolina megachurch when Obama was elected and I saw the shift take place firsthand. I saw the fear slowly being ratcheted up and the agenda become solidified and the prejudices leveraged.

I was speaking regularly at the Billy Graham headquarters when Fox News reporters and Republicans like Sarah Palin started walking the halls with frequency.

I saw the messages at pastor’s conferences grow more incendiary and urgent, and heard the supremacist dog whistles become louder and more frequent.

While many decent people around this nation celebrated the progress of a black president and the many civil and human rights victories and gradually let down their guard—the white Conservative church set off the alarms and prepared for a holy war.

Yet, they were still a largely powerless, dying dinosaur until 2016, when Donald Trump acquired the presidency and gave the Evangelicals the perfect amoral partner to serve as the biggest bully pulpit they’ve ever had. Combine that with a fragmented Left, a general fatigue by the larger population, a ceremonial victory in Congress (thanks to Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema), and Republican attacks on voters’ rights— and we are now a hair’s breadth from the subjugation of diverse humanity here.

These are not followers of Jesus despite the trappings and window dressing. They are Jesus-less extremists: blind zealots for nothing but power. They have been conditioned by decades of polluted theology and FoxNews alternative facts to see diversity as a threat, to see progress as attacks on America, and to interpret more people being treated with dignity as oppression of white people.

Trust me when I tell you that we won’t recover from the theocracy Evangelicals are constructing once it is established. If we fail in 2022, they will have a political power that will render every election null and void, and we will never have a voice again in our lifetimes.

Women will lose autonomy over their own bodies.
LGBTQ people will have the rights to marry and adopt taken away.
People of color will be fully squeezed out of the electoral process.
Immigrants will be denied access to opportunity and refuge here.

These are not creative projections. They are precisely what Evangelicals have repeatedly stated as their intentions, and they’re closer than they’ve ever been to having a rubber stamp.

We can still stop it, though.
We just need a unity and coordination that transcends theirs.
We need a sustained, passionate, dedicated defense of humanity that rivals their relentless assaults on it.

I hear many people say they’re terrified, but being terrified alone doesn’t do anything but help these people.
Be terrified and get angry.
Be terrified and get busy.
Be terrified and go to work.
Be terrified and fight like hell.

I wish more decent people in America remembered they are among the vast majority instead of acting as if they are helpless victims of Republican Christians. We could defeat them, and we need to. We just need to stop lamenting how much damage they are doing and start doing something to oppose them.

We’ve seen this play out throughout history and we know how it ends. We know what the unchecked religious extremist is capable of and we know the cost of the silence and inaction of good people. We also know what people are capable of when they refuse to accept fascism and white supremacy cloaked in the Bible and wrapped in the flag, when they fight for something inherently good together.

As someone who knows just how much these Christians have lost the plot of their faith tradition, believe me when I tell you that they cannot be allowed to steer this nation. It will not end well for the disparate people who call it home or who one day wish to.

Love and equity and diversity are in the balance.

It’s time we made a choice.

It may be the last one we get.”



Putting Us In Our Place…

The day the Alito draft opinion leaked, my youngest son sent me a reaction from The Onion, headlined “Vessel for Male Sexual Gratification Very Sad Today.”

Noting its slumping posture, slack expression, and overall downcast appearance, sources confirmed Wednesday that a vessel for male sexual gratification was very sad today. “It definitely appears to be upset,” said sources, adding that the object that exists solely for men’s physical pleasure was presently sitting unmoving with a distant, empty stare. “It doesn’t look happy. What’s wrong with it? I don’t like the way it’s ignoring me.” At press time, sources had decided to go over to the sexual apparatus and tell it to smile.

Despite the pious, “pro life” pronouncements of those who have worked assiduously to control women’s reproduction, the real issue has little or nothing to do with “saving babies.” (If it did–as innumerable people have pointed out–Americans wouldn’t continue to ignore the care and feeding of those babies once they are born.) It’s the “place”–the defined status– of women. 

We can see the desired end game of the “pro-life” movement in the declarations of the more rabid anti-choice warriors, who have made it quite clear that they oppose birth control as well.

I still remember a conversation with a partner at the law firm I joined after graduating from law school. It was 1977, and the firm had just hired its first two women lawyers (I was one). He mused that women’s ability to plan our childbearing had opened up employment opportunities that hadn’t previously been available. He was right.

Before the wide availability of birth control, the only real “choice” available to women who wanted to pursue professional careers was to abstain–from sex, marriage, and motherhood–or to delay for many years (or more commonly, to entirely forgo) careers.

The birth control pill changed women’s worlds. It also changed virtually all parts of American society. Remember that old cigarette ad, proclaiming “You’ve come a long way, baby?” We have.

Think about the trajectory.

Religion began–and mostly remains– highly patriarchal. Women were seen as either temptresses (Eve!), or nurturers and breeders. Gender norms were “God decreed,”  and religious texts were male-centered.

When the American colonies were first settled, they adopted English laws forbidding women from owning property or from keeping their own earnings. In 1877, all states had laws preventing women from voting. Women have had the vote for just over 100 years.

Most other advances toward civic equality for females came after 1960–the year the FDA approved the birth control pill. In 1963, we got the Equal Pay Act. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed and the EEOC established. In 1965, the  Supreme Court ruled that state legislatures couldn’t forbid married people from using contraceptives–a ruling that Alito’s draft endangers. Other rulings allowed women to serve on juries, and forbid various types of gender discrimination. It was only recently that the Lily Ledbetter Act attacked the practice of paying women less than men doing the same job.

Thanks to those legal changes–and especially the ability to decide whether and when to procreate–women have entered much more fully into the life of this country. We have a woman Speaker of the House, a woman Vice-President. Turn on your TV, and women news anchors and sports reporters inform you. Today, your doctor and your dentist and your CPA are all as likely to be women as men.

The results have been salutary–and not just for women.

A friend whose company offers financial services recently posted an article from The Daily Shot, sharing research that compared companies with greater and lesser numbers of female executives in the ranks. Those with more female executives “have done far better over the last decade in return on equity than the rest of the S&P 500.”

The Christian Nationalist Party–formerly the GOP–finds the current state of affairs terrifying and “unGodly.” The old White guys who believe they should run the world have very accurately identified the foundation on which women’s progress rests: the ability to control our own reproduction. 

And that is what the fight over abortion is really about.

Assuming the extent of the backlash to the Alito leak doesn’t change the result–assuming the Court issues a version of Alito’s dishonest “history” and his astonishing decree that state legislators should have the right to require women to give birth–we will see whether America is willing to roll back the past fifty years of cultural change–whether even Red states are able to erase the civil status, empowerment and participation of half of the population.

Will this last gasp of patriarchy prevail? We’re about to find out.

Performative Religion Versus The Real Thing

Calling something “performative” is a nicer way of identifying what’s phony–of calling out the posturing of politicians pretending to care about governing, and especially “Christians” pretending they are acting out of genuine faith.

I recently encountered two unrelated examples of that calling out. The first was an editorial from Religion News Service, referencing the just-argued Supreme Court case of the football coach who insisted on praying on the 50-yard line.

That coach, Joe Kennedy (absolutely NO relation!), sued a school district in Washington state after it prohibited him from leading public prayers immediately following games. The editorial didn’t focus on the constitutional argument; instead, the author pointed out that  genuine believers are ill-served by public expressions in secular settings.

This — more than any legal reasoning — is the judgment believers are called on to make. In the exercise of liberty, we can recall the words of St. Paul: “’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” 

Ostentatious public prayers do not edify. If anything, they detract from serious Christian devotion. As with street-corner preachers who are well within their right but convince no one, Kennedy’s public postgame prayers were likely little more than a sideshow. The law may broadly permit it, but Christianity does not require it.

The essayist pointed to scriptural evidence that “Christ himself not only does not require showy, potentially coercive public prayers — he teaches against them.” Kennedy’s prayers, he notes, “may have provided psychological uplift to him, but they were not meaningful exercises in Christian faith and devotion.” And he worries that “emboldened conservative justices” will “open the door to more nominal, cultural Christianity. It seems that in the era of former President Donald Trump and his judges, that’s all so-called conservative Christians really want.”

Research by political scientists and religion scholars alike has documented the use of precisely that “cultural Christianity” by White Christian Nationalists intent upon retaining their status as the “real Americans.” Their panic about “replacement” and loss of cultural hegemony is producing ugly accusations of “grooming” by LGBTQ citizens, and other despicable charges defended as protected expressions of religious piety.

Which brings me to the really excellent example of how genuinely religious people can and should respond.

Michigan State Senator Mallory McMorrow describes herself as a “straight, white, Christian, married, suburban mom.” She had been accused by a GOP colleague of being a “groomer,” the latest right-wing slander against anyone who supports the rights of LGBTQ children. Rather than ignoring the accusation, or walking back her support, she grounded her position in her own faith.

  “I want every child to feel seen, heard, and supported,” she said, “not marginalized and targeted if they are not straight, white, and Christian.”

As the author of the linked article pointed out, 

To understand the power of McMorrow’s words, you have to understand that “straight, White and Christian” is the default cultural and political setting in this country. Throw in “male” and you’d have the top of this pyramid. Just ask Tucker Carlson.
When you’re none, or not all, of those identities, you’re made to feel it. Your intellect, dignity and value are called into question. Demagogues gin up fear of you for electoral gain. Your very life becomes a political piñata whacked around by people who don’t have to live with the consequences of what they have wrought. Look at the anti-trans legislation littering the land or the “don’t say gay” law in Florida.

Activists who aren’t “straight, white and Christian” have pushed back against bigotry for many generations, and they have secured hard-won advances. But especially in this new front in the United States’ oldest culture war, those voices could use some backup. Enter McMorrow. …

The author makes an important point: McMorrow’s response should be a “blueprint for Democrats who are accustomed to cowering in fear of Republican culture war attacks.”

Too many national Democrats are letting the incipient “groomer” charges go unchallenged or are assuming they’re too ridiculous to gain traction. They’re ridiculous, yes — but that doesn’t mean they can’t gain traction. (Have you seen today’s Republican Party?)

I am not religious, and I have frequently expressed contempt for self-identified “religious” figures who are intent upon imposing their purported beliefs on others. Like Coach Kennedy, their public expressions of piety are purely performative. That said, I have great respect for people who  genuinely look to their religious traditions for lessons on what constitutes moral and ethical behavior, and for guidance on how they should treat their fellow humans.

There was a saying “back in the day” to the effect that the religious right is neither. We need more people like Mallory McMorrow, who are positioned to illustrate what the real thing looks like.