What About the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

We Americans treasure religious liberty. We’re just a bit vague on the definition of “religious.” (Actually, we aren’t too clear on what we mean by “liberty,” either.)

I still recall a conference I attended early in my academic career; I approached a religious studies scholar who had delivered what I considered a brilliant paper, and during the ensuing discussion, she shared her belief that the First Amendment should simply have protected “intellectual integrity”–that the problem with specific references to religious liberty was that they required courts to decide what should count as “religious” for purposes of constitutional analysis.

And what should count as “religious” has been–and remains– hotly contested.

Think, for example, about the awkward history of conscientious objector jurisprudence. For a long time, courts only recognized moral objections to engaging in combat if the person registering the objection belonged to a “recognized” (um..established??) pacifist church. Others claiming that status were challenged. But–as the courts ultimately came to recognize– there are many non-theists and members of other denominations and religions who have sincere and deeply-felt pacifist beliefs.

More recently, of course, we are seeing people claim religious sanction for a right to discriminate, and it is hard not to suspect that their “sincerely held beliefs” have more to do with bigotry than godliness.

The point is, it is by no means clear what sorts of beliefs and conduct can properly be labeled “religious,” as opposed to “political,” “ideological,” “philosophical” or even delusional.

I receive Sightings, a digital newsletter from the University of Chicago Divinity School, and that publication recently referenced a Massachusetts lawsuit raising precisely that issue:

But courts do get asked about “religion,” and can’t wiggle out of exchanges on this. It was easier to define in historic cultures where a manifestation of religion, e.g. “an established church” got to define religion in “we” versus “they” terms. Today, propose a parlor game in which participants have to define the term, and listen. If “established” versions you will hear are too constricted, others are too protean. One hears then: “if everything is religious, then nothing is religious.” Now, pity the people who are called to fight over religious subjects not in games but in courts…

O’Loughlin’s case involves the keepers of a Massachusetts “religious” shrine whose property is tax-exempt for those parts of its workings which strike “everyone” as being focally religious: worshiping, nurturing, shaping spiritual life. But, strapped-for-tax-revenue neighbors of the shrine-keepers argue, should parts of the property used for what some would call “secular” purposes be tax-exempt because the owners or custodians of the shrine deem them and claim them to be ‘religious’?

Unsurprisingly, religious leaders of several traditions filed a brief in support of the tax-exempt status of the entire facility.

The notion that local assessors or any government actor is equipped or would presume to deem whether one use of a religious organization’s property or another falls within the definition of ‘religious worship’ is antithetical to religious freedom,” said the brief, signed by leaders representing Jewish, Christian, and Muslim organizations. Catholic bishops in Massachusetts, including Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, also weighed in, arguing in a brief that the shrine’s grounds offer “communion with nature,” which “is a core religious activity with ancient roots in Christianity’s past.”

Gee–I “commune with nature” in distinctly unChristian fashion…But I digress.

According to this argument, courts and other secular institutions are simply precluded from drawing distinctions between properties used for authentically religious purposes (whatever those are) and those simply owned by religious organizations–although to the extent properties are tax-exempt, secular taxpayers’ rates increase. (Someone has to pay for the public services such properties enjoy–streets, police and fire protection, garbage collection and the like.)

I can’t help thinking of Flip Wilson’s inspired “Church of What’s Happening Now” rants (you youngsters can Google that), or the more contemporary “worship” of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Despite rightwing rhetoric, it isn’t the LGBT community that is demanding “special rights.”


Some Facebook Wisdom

I’ve been mulling over a Facebook comment to my post a week or so ago about the insanity of Indiana’s single-minded focus on low taxes as the magic medicine for everything and anything that ails us.

A reader named Brian wrote

“I left low tax indianapolis for high-tax Madison, WI. My property taxes for my little suburban ranch are more than double what my parents back in Indy pay for their 2 story in an awesome neighborhood. But, those high taxes pay for good police, good schools and good services. My residential street gets plowed every time it snows. I can send my kid to a public school and not have to worry about the quality of her education- there are some private schools here, but not many, because mostly, they aren’t needed. My family back in Indy all have security systems on their homes. Meanwhile, I’ve gone 3 days forgetting to lock the front door. I have a city that cares about my quality of life. My taxes pay for lake access, bike paths and more parks than I’ve ever seen. I could save money on taxes moving back to Indy. But I’d lose every bit of my savings paying for private versions of the services I get here. And I get the extra satisfaction in knowing that everyone has access to these services, not just suburbanites like me.”

I think this comment highlights a reality that all too often gets buried in the zealotry of the Left/Right debate: the fundamental question we face, especially in cities, isn’t whether we will pay for services. It’s how.

Most of us are unwilling to forgo police and fire protection, garbage collection, paved streets, and schools for our children. Most of us, if survey data is to be believed, also want convenient and reliable public transportation, parks and bike paths.  Many of us are undoubtedly willing to forgo sports arenas and cricket fields, but we all want and need  museums and libraries, as well as the more basic necessities and amenities that make life in urban areas attractive.

Those necessities and amenities cost money, but they cost less when we provide them collectively.

Some day, when time permits, I want to do an experiment. I want to calculate what it would cost to procure these services in the private marketplace. How much would I have to spend to hire private security, contract for fire protection, find a scavenger service to pick up my trash, etc.? (I don’t know how I would even arrange street paving and snow removal–perhaps through a cooperative with my neighbors? And what about sewers? Would private providers charge to hook in, or would we all further damage the environment with private septic systems?) I could pay to use private parks–or join a country club if I could afford that–and of course I’d have no option but to have the considerable expense of a car.

That sort of transactional existence doesn’t sound very attractive, and it would significantly disadvantage poor folks, but let’s assume those considerations aren’t relevant. (They sure aren’t to many of our lawmakers.) One thing seems clear: the costs involved would be far in excess of what I pay in property taxes.

The point is, our interminable debate about “taxes” and “tax rates” is profoundly misleading. We have no choice but to provide local governments with the funds needed to provide a reasonable quality of communal life.

We can legitimately argue about cronyism, whether a given administration is operating efficiently, and about whether obvious “extras” like sports arenas are justified, but when we make a virtue of starving the public sector of basic operating income, we shouldn’t be shocked when local politicians rob Peter to pay Paul by selling off public goods and trading our long-term interests for short-term cash.

Think about that the next time you flush.