Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sermon: "The Battle Over Religious Freedom" (Delivered 4-28-13)

Last summer our church marched in the Lenexa Fourth of July parade.  Celebrating one hundred years of women’s suffrage in Kansas we dressed as suffragists – well, some of us dressed as suffragists – and walked the parade route through Lenexa’s downtown, just across the railroad tracks from where we’re sitting this morning.

While marching with our church I happened to spot a man sitting on a lawn chair in front of his home.  And, this man was holding a sign that simply said, “Defend Religious Liberty.”  “Defend Religious Liberty.”  Now, those words may be a little vague, they may be somewhat abstract, but I also knew that this man holding the sign was making reference to something very specific.

This man’s sign was a protest again President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, specifically a part of the law that requires health care plans to cover a range of preventative health care services for women including contraception.  If you will allow me to be wonky for just a bit, I might explain that the Affordable Care Act does allow a religious exemption to this part of the law but only to religious organizations that meet a narrow set of criteria.  To be exempt from offering a plan that covers contraception, a religious organization must have the inculcation of religious values as its purpose, must primarily employ people who share its religious tenets, must primarily serve people who share its religious tenets, and must be a 501(c)3 non-profit.  In other words, a congregation would not be required to follow this portion of the law, but a religiously affiliated hospital or a religiously affiliated university or a for-profit business whose owner has personal religious objections couldn’t decide to opt out of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act for religious reasons.  In other words, Shawnee Mission Medical Center, Avila University, Hobby Lobby, and Chick-fil-a can’t decide to opt out of the law for religious reasons.

So, to come back around, we find that this guy in the lawn chair with the sign at the Fourth of July parade was arguing that Obamacare violates the religious liberty of institutions and businesses by requiring them to make available services that the heads of those organizations might object to for religious reasons.

However, if you were to ask someone in this room about attacks on religious freedom that need to be guarded against, if you were to ask us what religious liberty needs defending, the examples that many of us might give would probably be quite different from the concerns of the man with the yard sign.  We tend to be concerned with things like attempts to teach creationism in public schools, attempts to offer prayer in public schools, and politicians who attempt to turn their own private religious values into public policy.  Here in Kansas and Missouri our concerns about religious freedom and the separation of religion and government are front and center.  In the news recently we’ve heard about a school district in western Kansas that scheduled a mandatory assembly entitled “The Truth About Dinosaurs” led by a religious organization that promotes Young Earth Creationism and teaches that the earth is less than 10,000 years old and that dinosaurs lived in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve.  Here we are concerned when the Governor of Kansas writes religious notes on pieces of legislation that he signs, such as scrawling “JESUS + Mary” on the top of a piece of legislation restricting access to abortion and contraception.

The title of my remarks this morning is “The Battle Over Religious Freedom.”   And, I want to say that there are two substantially different views about what religious freedom entails that we encounter in society today.  I want to describe these opposing views, consider them, talk about why they are important to us as citizens and as Unitarian Universalists, and ultimately recommend to you an approach to issues of religious freedom.

This contrast between competing views of religious liberty is perhaps best seen by looking at two different websites.  On the website of the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian organization with the stated goal of defending religious liberty, you find the following statement,

Throughout our history, America has been a land defined by religious faith and freedom. Religious freedom is our first and most fundamental, God-given right deemed so precious that our Founding Fathers enshrined it in the U.S. Constitution.  […]

[T]argeted attacks on religious liberty are more serious and widespread than you may realize. In courtrooms and schoolrooms, offices and shops, public buildings and even
churches…those who believe in God are increasingly threatened, punished, and silenced.

We might compare this statement to what we find on the website of the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, which has the expressed goal of promoting the “free exercise of religion.”  The ACLU writes,

The right to practice religion, or no religion at all, is among the most fundamental of the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.  The ACLU works to ensure that this essential freedom is protected by keeping government out of religion.

Federal, state, and local governments frequently prevent individuals from practicing their faith in a variety of ways. These burdens often disproportionately effect members of minority faiths, who are often forced to remove religious garb in public places, denied basic governmental services or privileges, and generally treated as second-class citizens.


Safeguarding the right of free exercise of religion and individual conscience is of vital importance to the ACLU’s mission.

At first blush, these statements seem to be fairly similar, even complementary.  However, if we dig a little deeper, we find that each organization’s understanding of religious freedom is significantly different.  The Alliance Defense Fund’s website states,

So why is religious liberty under attack in America today?

For decades, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other radical anti-Christian groups have been on a mission to eliminate public expression of our nation's faith and heritage. By influencing the government, filing lawsuits, and spreading the myth of the so-called “separation of church and state,” the opposition has been successful at forcing its leftist agenda on Americans.

The battle for religious freedom is the battle between two very, very different visions of what religious liberty actually entails, and it has everything to do with the role of religion in the public arena, in government, education, health care, and in commerce and the marketplace.

The one place where religious liberty is most certainly not under threat is in houses of worship themselves.  Churches and synagogues and temples and mosques, by law, are allowed to do all sorts of things in the name of religious freedom that other institutions in our society are explicitly banned from doing.  Suppose the Catholic Church across the train tracks wanted to hire a new priest.  That church would be every bit within its rights to say, “Only Catholics are invited to apply.”  Sure, that’s discrimination, but someday you’ll get to choose a new minister and I guarantee that you won’t be fielding applications from Southern Baptists or Scientologists.  For churches, the right to discriminate is protected as a form of free religious expression.  Just as the Catholic Church is within its rights to say that only Catholics need apply, it is also constitutionally protected in saying “women are ineligible to apply for this position.”  People who try to argue that the government is scheming ways to regulate the free religious exercise practiced by houses of worship come across as rather delusional.  The truth is that religion, for better or for worse, and probably both for better and for worse, is one of the most unregulated areas of American life.

But what about the public square?  To what degree is a person protected in acting upon his own religious liberty, her own religious conscience, in arenas that are shared by the American public at large?  We have the First Amendment to the Constitution:  Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.  At what point does free exercise run up against other public duties of citizenship within a democratic nation?

Twenty percent of the budget of the United States government goes to the Department of Defense, but a dedicated member of a pacifist religious group – a Quaker, a Mennonite, or a Jain – does not get to claim a religious exemption and pay 20% less in taxes.  If they did, the Quakers would be the fastest growing religious group in America!  A business owner who happens to be a deeply committed conservative Christian would not be able to cite passages from Paul to combat a gender discrimination lawsuit.  A company owned by a Jehovah’s Witness does not have the option of offering a health plan that excludes coverage for surgical procedures requiring blood transfusions.

While this may seem like rhetoric, it actually speaks to at least five decades of individuals and organizations attempting to claim that their religious beliefs exempt them from laws.
“Shortly after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination based on race in public accommodations, the owner of a restaurant chain argued that the Act violated his religious beliefs opposing integration, and that he should therefore be allowed to exclude African Americans from his restaurant.  Two decades later, Bob Jones University used the same argument.  It wanted to maintain its policy denying admission to “applicants engaged in an interracial marriage or known to advocate interracial marriage or dating,” but still get special tax status reserved for institutions that don’t discriminate – all justified by reference to religious belief.
“Other entities have argued that they should be allowed to pay women less or give them inferior benefits based on religious beliefs that ‘the husband is the head of the house.’  When faced with equal pay and employment discrimination laws that require employers to treat women equally, these institutions said those laws were an infringement of their religious liberty.  Yet other institutions have attempted to evade labor laws by asserting that wage and hour rules or child labor prohibitions impede the religious liberty rights of groups who believe, for example, that children should work, even in hazardous commercial enterprises.”  [As quoted in this document.]
The two competing views are one that says that religious liberty means the right to do whatever I want in any segment of society as long as it is for religious reasons, and another that says that the laws of society can constrain certain actions, even if those actions are based on someone’s legitimate personal religious views.

Religious liberals have historically spoken of two ideals when it comes to religious liberty.  One ideal declares that religious beliefs are a private, individual matter but that the public sphere that we all occupy must be protected as secular space.  Here we might define secular as free from religious rules and teachings and neutral on matters of belief.  In 2006, then Senator of Illinois Barack Obama gave a speech at an event known as Call to Renewal which was sponsored by Sojourners, a movement of progressive Evangelical Christians who work to influence government to combat poverty and promote environmentalism.  Obama’s speech laid out his philosophy on the role of religion in government.  One of the things he said pointed to this idea of secular universality.  “Democracy,” Obama said, “demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason.”  In the battle over religious freedom, I think many of us would hold up this concept of neutral secularism as important.

There is, however, another ideal that I think we turn to when we look at this battle over religious freedom.  This ideal is not altogether incompatible with secularism, but it approaches these questions from a different angle.  This other ideal we might call pluralism.  Whereas secularism deals with truth and the privileging of certain forms of authority and argument, pluralism deals with community and the privileging of certain ideas about how we should exist together.

Pluralism asks, “Who is being included and who is being excluded?  Who is heard and who is silenced?  Who is being treated fairly and who is being treated unfairly?  Who is granted power and who is pushed to the margins?  According to the ideals of pluralism, religious freedom does not mean the absolute right to conform institutions in the public sphere to a specific religious doctrine.  Instead it means that values such as fairness, equality, inclusion, and tolerance are defended and promoted.

Even as the Affordable Care Act continues to be upheld as established law, even as discrimination is found by courts not to be a protected form of religious liberty, the conflict over religious freedom will doubtlessly continue.  It remains our task to articulate the ideal of pluralism, the ideal of equality and fairness, as both a democratic virtue and as a way of embodying our own faith.