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 accordingly.
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 supporters.”
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 adherents.
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
See a video interview about my new novel, SOULJOURN
See the GUIDE to my articles and books