Religious Freedom and Religious Privilege: a musing on the difference



The Supreme Court of the US is now considering a case from Greece, NY, in which
the town board started its meetings with sectarian Christian prayers.
Lower courts disallowed them as violations of the clause in the Constitution
banning the state from “establishment” of religion.  As I
described in a recent “musing”, the Air Force Academy had to
restructure its policies in order to rectify a climate that put strong pressure
on cadets to profess and practice evangelical Christianity.  The
“free exercise” of religion is permitted in the context of
governmental institutions, as it is everywhere else in America.  But great
care must be taken to prevent the government from endorsing, or even seeming to
endorse, a particular form of religion.  The case of Greece, NY,
fits in this latter category:  the city’s policy gave the impression of a preference
for a particular faith.  I pray that the Supreme Court will rule

This case is a manifestation of a larger struggle.  Some religious groups,
witnessing the rapid erosion of their membership and influence, are blaming
their woes on what they call a “war on religion” in America.
They interpret a ban against sectarian prayers at city council meetings as a
violation of their religious freedom.  I wrote about this phenomenon a few
years ago in a “musing” about my encounter with members of the
Quorum of the 70
at the headquarters of the LDS Church in
Salt Lake City.  The rhetoric is just as heated now as it was in
2011.  Currently, the requirement of Obamacare that mandates access to
reproductive health care has become part of the debate.  Religiously-sponsored
nonprofits and hospitals, unlike churches, are required to offer comprehensive
reproductive health coverage for their employees.  The Catholic Church
objects to this.  The Obama administration has bent partway to their
demands, just as it is bending toward conservatives by supporting the Greece,
NY, town board’s position on prayers at its meetings.  But this policy
could lead to further erosion of the limit against establishment of religion by
the state.

There is no “war on religion” in America, and there never has
been.  Expecting a hospital controlled by the Catholic Church to offer
birth control coverage to its employees is not an attack on religious freedom
or even on freedom of conscience.  The employees won’t be forced to use
birth control if they have religious scruples against it.  The
availability of the coverage does not suggest that the church has endorsed
it.  Religious leaders who believe that religious freedom is under attack
cite occasions when people have been harassed or fired for speaking their minds
on matters of faith or conscience in secular settings.  Yes, that’s bad,
but it’s old news.  People get fired for all sorts of arbitrary reasons,
all the time – and religion is just one of the factors.  And these same
religious communities are just as guilty of this behavior as other
institutions.  Churches are well-known for firing their pastors or
employees for speaking their minds or exercising their consciences.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State reports a new controversy at the Air Force
Academy.  Cadets are no longer required to say “so help me God”
as part of the school’s Honor Oath, although they can add those words if they
wish:  “…the American Family Association blasted its supporters
with calls for action. Their demands were simple: force cadets to use religious
language — in the name of freedom. ‘Urge Air Force Academy Commandant Brig.
Gen. Gregory J. Lengyel to preserve religious liberty by defending the oath and
recommending the Academy keep the current language intact,’ the AFA beseeched

What those who complain about a “war on religion” want is not
religious freedom.  They already have it.  What they want are more
privileges for their religious organizations.  They think it should have a
special, elevated status transcending the laws that everybody else has to
follow.  Mostly, they want the privilege to discriminate against
people.  If you’re not religious, and you go to a city council meeting,
you should listen to a prayer that ends “in the name of our Lord Jesus
Christ we pray, amen”.  If you are a non-Catholic working at a
Catholic-related hospital, you should be denied the kind of reproductive health
insurance that everybody else gets.  If you want to get married to your
same-sex partner, you should be discriminated against because it will offend
the values of some religious groups if same-sex marriage is legalized.

Dallin Oaks, one of the Mormon Church’s 12 Apostles, said in a 2011 speech:  “Treating
actions based on religious belief the same as actions based on other systems of
belief is not enough to satisfy the special guarantee of religious freedom in
the United States Constitution. Religion must preserve its preferred status in
our pluralistic society in order to make its unique contribution—its
recognition and commitment to values that transcend the secular world.”
Even if we allow the questionable assumption that religion is something special
compared to other systems of belief, Oaks’ argument runs aground on the sandbar
of America’s religious diversity.  Which faith’s transcendent value shall prevail?
The United Church of Christ’s, which endorses gay marriage, or the Mormons’,
which prohibits it?  Religion got special mention in the Constitution not
just because its preciousness should be protected, but because it had been used
as a cudgel by the states of Europe to control their citizens.

Giving religious groups yet more privileges compared to other social
institutions does service neither to religion nor society.  Consider Iran,
where theocracy has undermined the respect of young people for Islam.  Consider
Britain, where the state Church of England has lots of privileges but few

So let’s keep Jesus out of invocatory prayers at government meetings, let’s
keep religious dogma out of public school science textbooks, let’s make
religiously-affiliated nonprofits obey the same laws that other organizations
must follow.  Let us separate religious freedom from religious privilege –
for religion’s sake!




Website: JIMBURKLO.COM    Weblog: MUSINGS    Follow me on
twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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3 responses to “Religious Freedom and Religious Privilege: a musing on the difference”

  1. Expecting a hospital controlled by the Catholic Church to offerbirth control coverage to its employees is not an attack on religious freedom
    or even on freedom of conscience. The employees won’t be forced to use
    birth control if they have religious scruples against it. The
    availability of the coverage does not suggest that the church has endorsed

    This. A million times this.