Monday, March 05, 2012

Sermon: "Freedom of Religion, For Us and For All" (Delivered 3-4-12)

From John F. Kennedy's speech on the separation of church and state, delivered to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960.
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference – and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him. 
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish – where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source – where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials...
For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Baptist.  Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you.
Whenever I have the opportunity to speak about religious freedom, I do so with the fond memories of the time I spent, nearly half a lifetime ago, immersed in a year-long research project on the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.  The Virginia Statute was a piece of legislation authored by Thomas Jefferson and submitted to the Virginia General Assembly in 1779.  Composed a full decade earlier than the Bill of Rights, the Virginia Statute was the first legal expression of a modern understanding of religious freedom.  I spent a year researching religious freedom in the colonies, read over fifty books on the subject, and traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia, to handle original texts from the revolutionary period having to do with religious freedom.

I mention the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and that research project from so many years ago, because whenever there is talk about the religious views of the Founding Fathers, or about the meaning of religious freedom in the United States, or about the separation of church and state, these are things that I not only have an opinion about, but also of which I have a significant and serious historical understanding.

In speaking about religious freedom, I should also mention my volunteer role serving as the Vice-President of the MainStream Coalition here in Johnson County, an organization deeply committed to the separation of religion and government.  I don’t talk about my volunteer efforts with MainStream often from the pulpit because I am sensitive about perceived conflicts of interest.  But, I’ve recently been revisiting these ideas about the separation of church and state in preparation for a forum I’ll be leading on that subject later this spring.

And, not a moment too soon, it would seem.  At this moment religion and religious freedom are all over the news.  Most notably, religious freedom is being debated as it relates to health care legislation and the coverage of contraception and other health services related to human sexuality.  I had originally planned to focus my comments this morning on the subject of religious freedom and sexuality, but then decided to speak more broadly this morning and to return to the theme of sexuality and health next month.

While it’s sex that gets all the attention, there are other stories about religious freedom that are worthy of mention.  They include recent Supreme Court rulings about religious freedom, a number of pieces of legislation that have been proposed in Topeka, media coverage of the religious proclamations of those running for office, and repetitions of the spurious claim that there is a “war on religion” occurring in the United States.

Religion has been a major story concerning the two frontrunners seeking the Republican nomination for President.  But, it is nothing new for religion and politics to be linked.  We may remember that four years ago Barack Obama halted his campaign in Philadelphia to make a speech on race.  But, this was a speech necessitated because of publicized remarks by Obama’s minister, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and Obama used the speech to clarify his religious views and affiliation.  A half-century earlier, John F. Kennedy had seen it necessary to make a speech to allay fears that his Catholicism would interfere with his loyalty to his country.  And, Thomas Jefferson himself faced crude allegations and boldfaced lies from his critics about his alleged religious views or alleged lack thereof, attacks that are equally offensive, if not more offensive, than anything faced by any politician or candidate today.

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States contains two clauses regarding religious freedom.  These are known as the establishment clause – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” – and the free exercise clause – “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Thomas Jefferson put it much more colloquially when he said, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods or no God.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

We need to remember that the mixing of religion and government caused many pockets to be picked, many legs to be broken, and worse.  The Founding Fathers were reacting against British and European history in which religious heresy could get you imprisoned or even executed.  Moreover, they were reacting against a state supported religious system in which government corruption and religious corruption were one and the same.  The Puritans were particularly upset that their taxes went to support the Church of England.  Chief among their complaints was that the priesthood was not filled with godly men, but rather with the nepotistic appointments of the sons of the landed gentry.  The Puritans published extensive gossipy publications in which they named names and accused certain Anglican priests of adultery, illiteracy, and drunkenness.

Of course, once the Puritans and others left Europe to seek out religious freedom in the new world, they set up a system in which taxes paid for the construction of church buildings and for the salaries of ministers.  Massachusetts supported its ministers and churches, including its Unitarian ministers and Unitarian churches, with tax dollars up until 1833, a full forty years after the adoption of the Bill of Rights that was intended to prohibit the establishment of religion.

I want to focus very quickly on three different recent events that fall outside of the sphere of national politics but that say something about the state of religious freedom in our country at the present moment.  As you hear these stories, make sure to note your reactions.

The first story concerns a Unitarian Universalist church in Wayzata, Minnesota, that successfully sued the town in which it is located.  Several years ago, the church outgrew its building and arranged to purchase a larger tract of land on the edge of town on which it planned to expand.  The city told the church it could not build there because the land was not zoned for church use.  The church filed a lawsuit claiming that the town’s zoning requirements violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.  A little over two months ago, the city reached a settlement with the church, agreeing to pay the church a half million dollars in damages and also agreeing, as a condition of the settlement, to assist the Unitarian church in purchasing an adjacent parcel of land.

Story number two.  A little less than two months ago, the US Supreme Court ruled in a case brought by a teacher whose employment at a Lutheran religious school had been terminated.  The teacher claimed that she was discriminated against because she had a disability.  The case hinged on whether or not religious institutions need to follow federal employment laws.  The school argued that because the teacher led prayers and other religious activities, she was technically a minister and that therefore enforcing federal employment laws constituted a violation of the free exercise clause of the constitution.  Religious groups carefully watched this case.  In fact, the Unitarian Universalist Association filed an amicus brief, essentially an open letter to the court in favor of a specific ruling, in support of the teacher and insisting that religious organizations should have to follow anti-discrimination laws in this case. The UUA was the lone religious group to show its support for anti-discrimination laws.  On the other side, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Mormons, Episcopalians, Seventh-day Adventists, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, as wells as Orthodox and Reform Jews all supported the school in saying that the freedom of religion includes the freedom to openly discriminate.  The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, agreed that churches must be free to practice their faith, even if that faith is discriminatory.

Third story.  If you’ve been following the news out of Topeka, you know that this legislative session is taking up one lousy piece of legislation after another.  One of these awful bills is House Bill 2260, known as the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act.  In a nutshell, what this bill is designed to do is to allow individuals and businesses to discriminate in ways that violate local anti-discrimination ordinances as long as they claim that such discrimination is done for religious reasons.  It says that a person’s religion gives them the right to discriminate against other people based on their marital status or sexual orientation.  The author of this bill seems not only ignorant in matters of diversity, but also ignorant about the English language, twice making reference to “deeply-held religious tenants.”  A revised version of the bill correctly replaces the word “tenants” with “tenets.”  One more piece of evidence in favor of school funding.

A half million dollar judgment against a town for restricting where a church can be built, a unanimous Supreme Court ruling that declares that the first amendment trumps federal employment laws, the possibility of a Kansas law that protects religious bigotry – remind me again what people are talking about when they say that there is a war on religion?  It is doubtful that any of us believed that the phrase “the war on religion” was uttered seriously.  We know it for what it was, a charged piece of empty rhetoric intended to fire up the base and get people to the polls.  Jon Stewart said it best when he said that when people speak about a war on religion they are confusing persecution with not getting absolutely everything they want.

Of course, as I hear about these troubling cases in which religious groups assert the freedom to discriminate, I cannot help but wonder whether the first amendment should be subject to certain limits.  Would we be better off if religious liberty was curtailed in some instances?  I can think of another freedom guaranteed in the Bill of Rights that I am more than happy to let the government regulate.  I’m referring to the second amendment.  Yes, I would really like for there to be laws against my neighbor assembling an arsenal.  But then there are other rights that I believe simply cannot be abridged under any circumstance:  the right to a trial, for example.  Due process.

When Thomas Jefferson authored the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, he wrote something very interesting.  Jefferson wrote that “truth is great and will prevail if left to herself.”  Jefferson seemed to believe in a free-market approach to religious ideas.  If the government would only refrain from regulating religion, true religion would eventually rise to the top, and false religion would die out.  Jefferson was a real optimist in this regard.  He wrote, “There is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.”  I think Thomas Jefferson may have miscalculated.  Two hundred and thirty years later we’re still waiting for truth, when left to itself, to prevail.

It seems to me that the freedom of religion is neither good nor bad all by itself.  The same goes for freedom of speech.  “Just because speech is free doesn’t mean it has to be worthless.”  The freedom of the press includes the freedom to publish trash.  Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.  And the freedom of religion does protect nastiness and small-mindedness, ignorance and arrogance, bigotry and hate.

As much as I’m interested in the history of religious freedom, as much as I’m interested in Supreme Court decisions involving religious freedom, I’m struck that from a religious perspective, and moreover from a moral and ethical perspective, the letter of the law can be an empty, empty thing.  Churches can build more or less where they want to.  Religious employers can discriminate.  Freedom of religion, according to some legislators in Topeka, may protect your freedom to be a religious jerk.  But, while freedom does often protect the lowest common denominator, freedom does not have to aspire to it.

How do you feel about these three cases?  What limits, if any, should there be to religious freedom?  As with most sermons, my word is not the final word.  It is for you to discuss, deliberate, debate, and, ultimately, decide.  But, as you go forth, I leave you with one more idea to consider.  Freedom can be both immature and mature.  An immature freedom relies on the idea of freedom to justify, rationalize, and excuse.  A mature freedom takes responsibility for its consequences.  Freedom also includes the freedom to be better than you are required to be.