Right to Religious Freedom? Yes. Right to run a business according to your faith? Not necessarily.

Our nation’s commitment to the free exercise of religion is unwavering. Religious organizations are tax-exempt, and gifts to religious organizations are tax deductible, lest the tax code be seen as a burden to the free exercise of religion. Americans are free to assemble with people of like faith and to practice their faith in community without fear of government intervention. People can generally dress, worship, eat, practice morality, and otherwise structure their lives in accordance to their faith. This is a great strength of our nation.

And even the Armed Forces support a Chaplain Corps that provides service members with Chaplains who perform religious services and provide for the free expression of religion of service members. Chaplains also advocate for religious accommodation – to include provisions for a religiously-defined diet, the wearing of particular religiously-prescribed clothing, religiously-defined grooming standards, required head coverings, etc. – within the highly structured and uniform environment of the military.

We are a nation committed to the free exercise of religion.

In this spirit, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in the 1990s to guarantee the free exercise of religion by members of minority religions whose religious free exercise was unintentionally burdened by laws that otherwise had nothing to do with religion. So committed to the free exercise of religion are we that we wanted to make sure that minority religions could practice their faith without other laws would hinder their religious practice.

Yet, just over a week ago, my state passed a law that was designed to protect members of the majority religion (Christianity) from public policies they perceive as burdening their religious beliefs. What began as a law to protect the free exercise of religion from unintentionally burdensome laws has become, in its most recent state-law versions, a law to allow corporations to seek exemption from public accommodation laws on religious freedom grounds.

Of course, we’re talking about businesses owned by Christians who feel it a violation of their religion to provide services to gays and lesbians, particularly to gays and lesbians seeking same-gender wedding services (flowers, cakes, photography, etc.). They believe that providing such services would be an endorsement of a marriage that goes against their religious beliefs.

Yet, there is a big difference between ensuring the free exercise of one’s faith, and guaranteeing that a religious person who owns a business can operate that business with religious exemptions to key public policy commitments of our nation – including that of public accommodation (ie, businesses must serve all customers who walk through the door).

To this degree, the Armed Forces offers a helpful lesson.

The Armed Forces provides a Chaplain Corps to provide for the free expression of religion, and to perform religious services (worship, prayer, sacraments, rites, counseling, etc.) for service members. Yet, this commitment to religious expression within the military does not – cannot – accommodate a service member whose religion forbids the carrying of arms or engaging in combat. Such a citizen simply cannot be a soldier.

Ultimately, there is no constitutional right to join the Armed Forces.

Perhaps this is instructive for Christian business owners who seek exemption from serving certain customers. While there is a constitutional right to practice religion, and while free enterprise is central to our nation’s culture and economy, there is no Constitutional right to be a baker, or a photographer, or a florist. If conducting business according to the laws of our nation causes the business owner to violate their faith, perhaps the business owner need to find a new line of work.

The pacifist Christian cannot expect to keep a job in the military without violating her faith.

The orthodox Jew cannot expect to work in a pork processing plant without violating his faith.

Likewise, the conservative Christian perhaps should not expect to work in the wedding industry, if such work might require her to serve couples that offend their religious sensibilities.

The life of faith requires people of faith to make hard decisions. Will we tithe, spending less on consumer goods, house, or sports for our children? How will we raise our children? What choices will we make for engaging the culture – do we participate in civic holiday celebrations or not? What happens when religious practice conflicts with school or work schedules (an issue of particular concern for minority religions)? For some Christians, perhaps, one new hard decision they face is to find a line of work that would not put them in a position to violate core tenets of their faith.

I do not share the concern about same-gender marriage that some conservative Christians have. Yet, as someone committed to the free exercise of religion, I support the right of people to believe what they feel they are compelled to believe by their faith. Yet, their right to believe does not translate into a right to conduct a business in a way that sidesteps certain laws and commitments of our nation.

Knick-Knack Jesus OK in VA

I just read Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's opinion regarding the constitutionality of religious displays on public ground during the holidays, including displays of Jesus (pdf document of opinion; Washington Post blogpost on the matter). The sad thing is this: displays of Jesus are allowed on public ground so long as such displays are "not making a religious statement."

Translation: As long as Jesus remains a knick-knack (and not, you know, the Son of God who destroys death, raises up the lowly, feeds the hungry, and inaugurates the Kingdom of God, among other things) He can be displayed on public ground in Virginia, according to the Attorney General.

Truth be told, I'm not picking on Cuccinelli. I just get really annoyed when Jesus is turned into a knick-knack, whether by politicians, marketers, or by fellow Christians who somehow think that a taxpayer-funded "Court House Jesus" is a good idea.

Question: Why would anyone who respects religion want to rob its symbols of meaning just so they could be set on a court house lawn?

After all, the Supreme Court has already ruled that the phrase "In God We Trust" is essentially devoid of religious content and thus perfectly suitable as a national motto.  How sad it is that we are glad to render God language meaningless so that it can be fit for a coin.

Dear Government: Please keep your hands off of religious symbols. Religious communities and individuals can practice their religion just fine without your help.  Thank you.

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Church/State issues are a favorite of mine.

Religious Groups on Campus: Christian Legal Society vs. Martinez

Earlier today the Supreme Court heard arguments in Christian Legal Society vs. Martinez, testing whether a school's nondiscrimination policy can result in barring a student religious group – which, by definition, is limited to people who share that faith – from receiving official campus recognition.  The case involved a student organization at Hastings College of the Law, the Christian Legal Society (CLS), being denied official status because it bars from membership homosexuals and those who practice or support premarital sex.  NPR has a nice review of the issues involved in this case here

In Sunday's Washington Post, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley writes that "[a] campus offers a cradle of free speech where students can form organizations that foster the exchange of ideas and values.  Supporting such groups should not be viewed as endorsing their beliefs but rather as encouraging associations."  Encouraging associations is a public good, yes, and should be a priority of any school's student affairs office.  But is it required of public universities, even in violation of other school policies? 

For the internal workings of the student groups, enforcing a nondiscrimination policy could wreak havoc on the group's identity.  Professor Turley wonders what would happen if schools enforced nondiscrimination policies on the internal workings of Orthodox Jewish or Wahabi Muslim groups.  The NPR piece asks what would happen if an environmental student group were forced to admit into membership students who denied global warming.

This case seems to be less about the free exercise of religion, and more about how public universities govern and provide material support for student life activities.  The Christians who formed the CLS continue to enjoy their Constitutional rights to free association and free exercise of religion, even though their group was denied official standing at Hastings.  Members of the CLS continue to be free to associate and organize and worship.  Nobody is prohibiting these students from practicing their faith.  Rather, the question is whether a school must extend the benefits of official recognition – including subsidies, priority use of campus facilities, and access to the school's email network – to groups that violate the school's nondiscrimination policies.

I'm ambivalent about this issue.  I don't think it is a bad idea at all for schools to support student groups, both those that are religious and non-religious, those that are open and those that have restrictions to membership.  However, I tend to believe it is a bad idea for Christian groups to seek official support or subsidy.  Religious groups are best when they are operated independent of governmental or other funding sources that don't share in its mission.

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Post Script:

From Turley's piece:

These conflicts are forcing courts to confront the reality that most religions are based on exclusivity principles and, to some extent, discrimination. Whether it is the chosen and the unchosen or the faithful and the infidel, religions define their members in part by the adherence to a set of moral strictures. In Matthew 4:4, Jesus says, in reference to the Old Testament, that "every word . . . comes from the mouth of God." That does not allow much wiggle room for many in tailoring their views to meet societal demands.

Professor Turley oddly interprets Matthew 4:4, supposing that Jesus' quote of Deuteronomy 8:3 – "one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord" – is a reference to the Old Testament as a whole, and thus an example of how religious groups couldn't be expected to "[tailor] their views to meet societal demands."  Jesus' words in Matthew 4 are not about the immutability of the Old Testament – and neither is the original text from Deuteronomy – but rather about the call of the faithful to depend ultimately not on material goodies but on the promise, Word, and will of God.  Turley's attempt to shoehorn this passage into some argument about the restricted membership and practices of religious groups is just odd.

UPDATE:

Howard Friedman of Religion Clause offers great links to briefs filed, opinion pieces, and background pieces about this case, here.

Moment of Silence in Virginia Schools

According to Virginia law, a school pupil's free exercise of religion within the schools is guaranteed by one minute of silence in the school day.  I'm no lawyer, but I am a pastor and a person of at least ordinary intelligence.  I have a hard time seeing how a minute of silence provides such a guarantee. 

Here's the code:

§ 22.1-203. Daily observance of one minute of silence.

In order that the right of every pupil to the free exercise of religion be guaranteed within the schools and that the freedom of each individual pupil be subject to the least possible pressure from the Commonwealth either to engage in, or to refrain from, religious observation on school grounds, the school board of each school division shall establish the daily observance of one minute of silence in each classroom of the division.

During such one-minute period of silence, the teacher responsible for each classroom shall take care that all pupils remain seated and silent and make no distracting display to the end that each pupil may, in the exercise of his or her individual choice, meditate, pray, or engage in any other silent activity which does not interfere with, distract, or impede other pupils in the like exercise of individual choice.

The Office of the Attorney General shall intervene and shall provide legal defense of this law.

[See also § 22.1-203.1. Student-initiated prayer; § 22.1-203.2. Guidelines for constitutional compliance for student prayer; and § 22.1-203.3. Religious viewpoint expression; student expression.  Also note that the minute of silence went from being "authorized" to being mandated in 2000.]

Notwithstanding the legal language above, a moment of silence guarantees nothing but silence.  I fail to see how the free exercise of one's religion is enhanced by the existence of this provision, or how it would be harmed if this provision did not exist.  And absent any reference to a pedagogical, social, or psychological purpose for this silence, it seems that this code is nothing more than an attempt to institutionalize a prayer-like form in the public schools.

But there's something more troubling than simply the state requiring a prayer-like exercise in schools every morning.  Indeed, whenever the state dabbles in religion it is often religion that (inadvertently, perhaps) gets the short end of the stick (see my post yesterday about how the scheduling of public school Spring Break during Holy Week limits participation in Holy Week observances).  The code claims that this one minute of silence guarantees the free exercise of religion in schools by pupils.  Surely a guarantee of the free exercise of religion is not anything that the state can cram into or limit to a minute of silence!  The code's enshrinement of a minute of silence as a guarantee of religious exercise actually does harm to religion by suggesting – in legal code – that the free exercise of religion is something that can be protected and "guaranteed" by (and perhaps limited to?) sixty silent seconds.

Religion is not practiced only through brief silent prayers or devotional activities, as important as these are.  The Christian religion, anyway, can be practiced during the school day in so many ways, including through acts of justice, a humble lifestyle showing respect for those in authority and the lowly alike, faithful service to neighbor, and dedication to one's studies.  These are practices of faith that we teach in our churches.  But the school, which has much more contact time with children than do most churches, perpetuates a narrow understanding of what it means to exercise one's religion through its mandated minute of silence.

I don't see why the schools need this minute of silence anyway.  Surely children and families can take a moment of silence to pray or meditate at home in the mornings or on the car drive to school, in the evenings or on weekends.  Why must this "need" be provided by the school system?  If the free exercise of religion is not really guaranteed by this moment of silence (as noted above), and if perhaps religion is harmed by this provision (as suggested above), why have it at all?

I wish the government would stay away from prayer and prayer-like practices, recognizing that private citizens can and will engage in religious and spiritual activities in their own manner, according to their own faith, and in community with others of their choosing.  We do not need the government forcing our children to observe a prayer-like activity in our public schools.