Religious liberty and the law

supremecourtReligious liberty is a tricky thing. From a legal perspective, the matter is hardly settled, so the recent nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court is bound to have a significant impact.

What is more interesting to me is the media’s coverage of religious liberty issues. As seen in this Los Angeles Times piece, the law surrounding religious liberty is confusing and complex, which makes the journalist’s job all the more difficult. Sorting out precedents, summarizing cases and describing positions succinctly is an arduous task.

But the LAT‘s David Savage seemed to be up to the task in a piece dated Saturday. From his sources to his wide selection of cases, the article gives you a thorough review of Alito’s stance towards religious freedom.

Here’s a snippet:

WASHINGTON — If there is a sure winner in the cases decided by Samuel A. Alito Jr., it is freedom of religion — any religion.

During his 15 years as an appellate judge, President Bush’s Supreme Court nominee has written decisions in favor of Muslim police officers in Newark, N.J., who wore beards; a Native American from Pennsylvania who raised sacred black bears; and a Jewish professor who said she was pushed out of her job for refusing to attend faculty events on Friday evenings and Saturdays, her Sabbath. …

Religion is a subject of perpetual dispute in the courts, in part because of the conflicting principles set in the Constitution. The 1st Amendment says the government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech.”

In many school cases, all three principles are frequently cited: Although officials may not “establish” religion, they also may not restrict an individual’s freedom of speech or religion.

In an article dealing with related issues, the LAT‘s Josh Getlin finds himself dealing with a Godbeat story that delves deep into the legal realm. Unlike Savage, Getlin relies heavily on others to explain positions and policies. Here are a few examples:

  • “The school singled her out because she was pregnant, and the only way they could do that was because she was a woman,” said Cassandra Stubbs, an NYCLU attorney. “How do they determine if male employees engage in premarital sex?”
  • “I don’t understand how a religion that prides itself on being forgiving and on valuing life could terminate me because I’m pregnant and am choosing to have this baby,” said McCusker, who was fired last month. “I held the Catholic religion to a higher standard.”
  • “This issue won’t stand up in court because it’s a private matter involving a religious institution,” McCaffrey said, adding that the New York Civil Liberties Union “thought they might be able to intimidate us with this kind of action, but that’s not going to happen.”
  • And here is Getlin’s only reference to an official source, but he fails to dig any deeper than the handbook:

    The Brooklyn Archdiocese issued a brief statement this week, saying: “This is a difficult situation for every person involved, but the school had no choice but to follow the principles contained in the teachers’ personnel handbook.”

    The handbook states that “a teacher is required to convey the teachings of the Catholic faith by his or her words and actions, demonstrating an acceptance of Gospel values and the Christian tradition.”

    A proper examination into this issue would require a thorough understanding of Catholic teachings and doctrine. I don’t fully understand it myself, and I don’t think Getlin gets it either. A heavy reliance on news conferences and official statements does not help the reader get to the bottom of the issue. Time was probably and issue in Getlin getting this piece out the door as he was probably under a one or two day deadline, which is very little time to properly research a subject this complex.

    The key link between these two stories is the freedom of association. Any group has the right to ask members to follow their teachings and rules, but the question being raised is whether the rules in this case discriminate against females when it comes to employment. Is a private organization allowed to establish rules when it comes to the rules they are allowed to set for its employees? Even more importantly, what are the Catholic teachings when it comes to forcing a woman to marry a man if she has a baby with him?

    As we can see from the first LAT story, Alito will go to the mat to defend individual rights, but will he defend the rights of religious groups?

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    • Russ Pulliam

      Good distinction to make, between groups and individuals.

    • Patty Sarver

      When did religous liberty become tricky? I also wondered about this statement; “Even more importantly, what are the Catholic teachings when it comes to forcing a woman to marry a man if she has a baby with him?”
      What on earth is this about? i’d flat out say it’s an ignorant question.

    • dpulliam


      I’m confused as to what you are asking. The issue of religious liberty is confusing in this country and it is hardly a matter of settled law. Much remains to be settled and even then public opinion is quite divided.

      How is the question of this particular Catholic teaching ignorant?

    • boinkie

      The cynic in me thinks “Kaching kaching”…
      She applied for a job that required following the church’s rules, and three weeks later she “discovered” she was pregnant?
      Suspicion one: If she didn’t know she was pregnant when she applied, that means at the time she was applying for the job she was sexually active, and didn’t care about the church’s rules…indeed, it meant she was sexually active with an SOB who wouldn’t marry her, which suggests she has problems…
      Suspicion two: The really cynical analysis would be that she was pregnant, and figured that either the church would “support her” with insurance etc. or would fire her, and she could sue them…the speed of the lawsuit (without the time consuming arbitration that is usual in such cases) and the involvement of the press suggests a more troubling agenda….

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