This week I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on religious freedom and the Supreme Court at the Religion Newswriters Association Conference in Austin, TX. Our diverse panel included an atheist, the head of a local C4 founded by Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood, and a Christian attorney from the Liberty Institute. Below is text somewhat closely resembling my opening remarks:
What is religious freedom and why does it matter?
The pursuit of answers to ultimate questions is a universal human experience. Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live my life?
Religion provides metaphysical answer to these questions, answers that often prescribe behaviors, lived individually and in community with like-minded believers. And despite challenges from alternative, non-religious sources of authority (i.e. Enlightenment, Marxism, postmodernism) and the occasional claim of its demise, God is not dead. Religion persists. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest its influence is as powerful as at any point in human history.
Unfortunately, despite the ubiquity of religious experience, religious freedom is all too uncommon. Our own American history is the bittersweet story of a land founded in the pursuit of religious freedom that quickly organized itself according to strict sectarian divisions, sometimes persecuting dissidents.
Religious freedom is the right to ask questions of ultimate significance, and live in light of the answers. It consists of an unconstrained mind and unconstrained body: the freedom of orthodoxy, belief consistent with doctrine, and of orthopraxy, behavior that conforms with ones beliefs.
Conforming mind and body to ones most deeply held religious beliefs is a basic human right, worthy of utmost protection.
For this reason, religious freedom is America’s “first freedom”. Enshrined in the free exercise and establishment clauses that make up the first part of the First Amendment, freedom for religion is the foundation of all that comes after. After all, if the State can tell you what to believe, or deny your ability to live in accordance with your beliefs, what can’t it do? What’s to stop it from telling you what to read? Or what to write?
Over two hundred years of American jurisprudence over free exercise and establishment has proven that the complex dynamics contained within the first amendment are a permanent facet of American life. As nominal Christianity is replaced as America’s de facto religion, the conflicts between the demands of conscience and culture are sure to rise. Someone once said if India is the worlds most religious nation, and Sweden its least, America is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. The mainstreaming of alternative notions of human sexuality, through public education, arts, the law, media and other elite sectors, is the front line of this conflict. And the courts are a battlefield.
This term, the Supreme Court is likely to hear cases dealing with each of the Manhattan Declarations three foundational principles, two of which involve conflicts over sexual ethics:
- Arts and crafts retailer Hobby Lobby, founded and operated according to the biblical values of the Green family, has sued the federal government over the HHS mandate requiring employers to provide or subsidize abortions, abortion-inducing drugs and contraception, a violation of their belief that all life is sacred
- Elaine Hueginin, a New Mexico photographer who politely declined to use her creative talent to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony, was sued and ordered to pay massive penalties for living in accordance with what her religious beliefs say about the meaning and purpose of marriage. One judge on the New Mexico Supreme Court called this “the cost of citizenship”
- Town of Greece v. Galloway asks the Court to consider the Constitutionality of voluntary prayer, available to any member of the community, before a town council meeting; activities that we should welcome in a culture of religious pluralism, with freedom for religion as a vital contribution in the public square
Embracing religious pluralism is messy and complicated. There are no easy solutions, no elegant tests or legal doctrines that will iron out our differences once and for all. We ought to embrace the tension, learn from it, and from one another. We would be wise to remember the timeless words of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” reminds us that despite our differences we are “tied in a single garment of destiny. Within this “inescapable network of mutuality” recognizing and honoring our differences is a sure guarantee of peace, while the pursuit of sameness will only ever lead to violence.
Justice Clarence Thomas has said establishment clause jurisprudence is “in shambles.” Anyone who has tried to navigate years of precedent would have to agree. My hope is that the Court would use this term to give clarity, and to begin a new era in which government doesn’t merely tolerate religion, but promotes it, equally and without preference, as part of the competition of ideas fundamental to a free society.