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Discrimination or Discernment in the name of Religious Expression

Postscript of an Independence Day Observance

You can read or print a copy of this Commentary here.




“One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” So ends the Pledge of Allegiance we learned as grade-schoolers. It was likely at a time when it never would have occurred to us to “take a knee” while reciting it, with our hand over our heart. Among those liberties is the free exercise of one’s religious beliefs; indelibly ingrained into our nation’s Constitution and national psyche.

But what happens when the discernment of one citizen’s religious beliefs are deemed to be discriminatory; infringing upon the civil liberties and rights of another citizen? In fact, what constitutes any set of beliefs as “religious,” with the constitutional protections accorded it?

This is the second commentary in a Series on the relationship between our political and religious life.

I. Let them (Not) Eat Cake


“Sorry, guys, I don’t make cakes for same-sex weddings.” With that blunt comment, Jack Phillips, a baker who designs custom wedding cakes, sent two men who were planning their same-sex wedding out the door of his bakery, and set them off on a legal feud between religious liberty and gay rights that ultimately went before the U.S. Supreme Court. It handed down its rather equivocal decision two weeks ago.

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, writing in part, “Phillips (the baker) is a devout Christian. He has explained that his ‘main goal in life is to be obedient to Jesus Christ and Christ’s teachings in all aspects of his life.’ And he seeks to ‘honor God through his work at Masterpiece Cakeshop.’”

Kennedy went on,

“One of Phillips’ religious beliefs is that ‘God’s intention for marriage from the beginning of history is that it is and should be the union of one man and one woman.’  To Phillips, creating a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding would be equivalent to participating in a celebration that is contrary to his own most deeply held beliefs.

The government, consistent with the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise, cannot impose regulations that are hostile to the religious beliefs of affected citizens and cannot act in a manner that passes judgment upon or presupposes the illegitimacy of religious beliefs and practices.”

While essentially ruling in favor of this particular cake maker’s right to discriminate between what he believed to be faithful and acceptable to his God, or not, the Supreme Court left undecided whether a business owner’s religious beliefs or free speech rights can justify refusing some services to certain people in all cases. Huh?

How then does one distinguish between the freedom to not only express a religious belief, but act on it, as well; without at the same time sometimes infringing on another’s rights to remain free of what they experience as a discriminatory act?

II. Giving the ‘D’ Word a Bad Name


Discriminatory practices are not only applicable to the times in which we live, of course.  A 1stcentury Galilean spirit-sage known as Jesus from Nazareth held up similar examples of his own in his brief teaching ministry all the time.

Discriminatory views and practices are something with which we are all perfectly familiar. Yet what is seldom, if ever, questioned is what constitutes a valid or legitimate “religious” view or practice. We are so reticent to offend one’s claim of “religious” liberty, that we often fail to discriminate – in an act of discernment — how one can make a “religion” out of just about anything. Not only that, like the cakemaker who has discerned the teachings of a very different Jesus than the one I’ve sought to know and understand, he can even claim the authority of holy writ to somehow back it up. Another case in point:

Defending the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions infamously asserted: “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”

The passage actually goes something like this:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Rom 13:1-7)

Would that Sessions had also included in his little on-camera bible study the injunction from Romans in the preceding chapter which goes, “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” (Rom. 12:13)

Regardless, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Sessions, saying, “It is very biblical to enforce the law.”

True. Except for the pesky little fact that in that same compendium of sacred scripture there’s an unrelenting gospel tradition; where it is recorded again and again how Jesus of Nazareth continually broke the socio-religious laws of his time, both Torah and Empire. He did so – so he said — in order to fulfill what he discerned to be the true intent of Torah; and in defiance of the Empire. And he consequently paid the price for it under both an ecclesiastical and governmental policy of zero tolerance.


III. What Can Make American Great Again?


Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.
Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave
and eats a bread it does not harvest.
Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful …

Lebanese-American poet Kahil Gibran, 1883-1931

The first commentary in this Series was a reflection on the synonymy of politics and religion; how they are nearly indistinguishable, in that they both attempt to address the same needs, dreams and desires, values and principles we hold, or strive to achieve. Consequently, rather than being a combustible concoction, they are essentially synonymous terms.

Then, when I began to think about what was our nation’s approaching 4thof July observance, the question of the free expression of whatever one considers their religious beliefs seemed apropos. No sooner had I begun to explore this topic than it got shoved to the back pages of the newspaper; with the immigration / humanitarian crisis on our southern border becoming the all-consuming issue in the national and international news cycle. I can hardly keep up.

Regardless, the underlying and most pertinent question for our time may sound like something to challenge a campaign slogan: What could make America great again? Why? Because it is a question of discernment, where a discriminating eye can essentially choose between two very different visions of who we are, and still aspire to become as a people.

One vision would circle the wagons and fiercely — even “religiously” — defend the onslaught of asylum seekers seeking refuge, and  limit less desirable types from flooding our borders and “infesting” our society; while welcoming only the “best” using a subjective “merit-based” system.

The other “religious” vision is something more akin to extending unconditional hospitality to those undesirable types we find described in a certain scripture in the Christian faith tradition; about “the hungry who are fed, the thirsty given drink, the stranger who is welcomed, the naked who are clothed, the sick who are cared for, and those imprisoned for crossing the border illegally who are visited – if only they can be located. (Mt. 25).

The echo of that second vision is remarkably reminiscent of the words inscribed at the base of a statue looming in New York City’s harbor. Such words of comfort are also ones of caution. Because the Matthean text was also intended to be one of judgment; and how we ought be mindful of which choice we make.

Two signs at a demonstration protesting government immigration detention policies. Todos Santos Plaza, Concord, California, June 30, 2018

In the words of the 20thcentury poet, Kahil Gibran (above) pity the nation who chooses unwisely. With due credit given to Gibran, an adaptation written just over a decade ago by Larence Ferlinghetti, the American poet (activist andco-founder of City Lights Booksellers SF), rings alarmingly apropos today; as we approach our upcoming national holiday:

Pity the nation whose people are sheep,
and whose shepherds mislead them.
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars, whose sages are silenced,
and whose bigots haunt the airwaves.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice,
except to praise conquerors and acclaim the bully as hero
and aims to rule the world with force and by torture.
Pity the nation that knows no other language but its own
and no other culture but its own.
Pity the nation whose breath is money
and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed.
Pity the nation — oh, pity the people who allow their rights to erode
and their freedoms to be washed away.
My country, tears of thee, sweet land of liberty.

© 2018 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

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