Approaching a Dangerous Threshold

Many years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States took up a case involving people who did not wish to conform to a law that they considered to be an imposition on their religious beliefs.  The government, backed by strong public opinion sought to enforce the law, and to compel this religious group to comply.

But they persisted in defending their civil rights, particularly their freedom of religion.  It was a time when it was widely understood that freedom of religion was actually a civil right, essential to well-ordered liberty.   People recalled that the freedom of religion was so important that it was explicitly enshrined in the United States Constitution in two separate places — in the Free Exercise and Establishment clauses of the First Amendment, and in the ban on religious tests for public office.  It was a time when freedom of religion was under attack around the world, with people of some faiths being openly and brutally persecuted.

But it was also a time when unpopular religions still faced legal obstacles in the United States.  Some faiths were considered to be out of step with American values, out of the mainstream of acceptable opinion, and were widely criticized and even derided in the popular media.

The group in that case was the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the law required their children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  They took the issue all the way to the Supreme Court, in hopes that the highest court of our land would defend their right to live in keeping with their faith, and would grant them an exemption from the law.  The Supreme Court agreed with them, and reversed an earlier decision that gave their religious interests little respect.  In doing so, the Supreme Court, in the words of Justice Jackson, said something very significant about the nature of our government, and the importance of respecting dissent:

[F]reedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.  If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.  (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 1943)

We are now at a point in American history where this foundational principle is under direct attack, and it is not clear whether it will survive.  The long-standing conflict between the Christian faith and the forces of sexual liberation and radical egalitarianism is approaching a threshold that will be very dangerous to cross.

The battle right now is being conducted over religious freedom restoration statutes (“RFRA’s”) that have been enacted in twenty states (and which are the law by judicial decision in eleven others).  Those laws reflect the values expressed by the Supreme Court in the Jehovah’s Witness case.  RFRA laws recognize the civil rights of religious people to an exemption from certain general laws.  They would only get an exemption if they can prove that the law imposes a substantial burden on their religious beliefs.  However, they would still have to obey the law if the government has a compelling interest in enforcing it and there are no reasonable alternatives.  A RFRA law essentially creates a balancing test that courts would have to apply to a fact-based situation.  It does not grant a  blanket or automatic exemption to religious people.

The real dispute is, of course, whether Christians can be compelled to recognize same-sex “marriages” and to provide direct services to ceremonies that purport to create such unions.  A reasonable argument can be held about this question.  But that’s not what’s happening, and that’s precisely why we are in such a dangerous moment.

There has been an amazing amount of hysterical, ill-informed opposition to these RFRA laws that fail to take into account their true, limited nature.  But what really concerns me is the dismissive attitude that’s being displayed about religious freedom and the freedom to dissent.  People are speaking as if the category of “civil rights” didn’t even include freedom of religion, and that it must always be suppressed in favor of the supposed right to same-sex “marriage”.  One of our major political parties, most of the mainstream media, many of our courts, and a number of large corporations have already crossed the line into official intolerance towards religious liberty.   Public opinion polls show a shrinking number of people (albeit still a majority) who respect the right to dissent based on religion.  Gone are the days when dissent was considered a legitimate form of patriotism.

Basic respect for the right to dissent from official orthodoxy is under threat, and may not survive much longer.  When, as I expect, the Supreme Court invents the imaginary “right” to a same-sex “marriage”, this conflict will grow even more intense, and the danger to dissent based on religious beliefs will be even more acute.

On the other side of this threshold is real persecution, like that shown to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the old days.  People are already being forced to recognize same-sex “marriages”, or face crippling fines and loss of businesses.  Institutions that resist will be punished by loss of public funding, access to public programs, and tax exemptions.  Individuals who dissent will be shunned and excluded from certain professions, and even from public office.

The right to dissent is essential to American liberty.  The Supreme Court saw that in the Jehovah’s Witness case.  Will our nation continue to see that now?

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3 Responses to “Approaching a Dangerous Threshold”

  1. DottieDay says:

    The case is and has always been: Satan vs. the Catholic Church. From the Annunciation. From the Holy Innocents…the flight to Egypt. To the Pharisees. To Calvary. It’s always been: Get Jesus. Satan is Lord.

    …and it continues because Satan’s work is not finished. So far the court is the battlefield. Individual Christians holding to faith are just legal steps to the real goal of destroying the Church. Destroy what Jesus founded. Kill his Presence. And Satan will be Lord.

    Legally, are we reaching the end of the rope? Looks like we are darn close. I worry what our shepherds will do once the game comes out of the courts and into our homes? Will they behave like the original apostles at Calvary? Will they seek shelter like the Lutheran Church in the face of Nazi Germany? Will they be able to lead us with the big spiritual picture? The clock is ticking. We are in harms way. We’ll know soon enough. Be ready.

  2. Peter Rox says:

    The US Supreme Court has also recognized that not all invocations of religion and “religious liberty” are legitimate, or that the mere invocation of religion does not trump all rights of others. For example, in various other Jehovah’s Witness cases, Church members claimed that their children could not receive life-saving medical treatment such as blood transfusions because of religious belief. It is long-settled law that such claims barring such medical treatments are not legitimate in preventing doctors and hospitals from administering such treatment to the children. After the passage of the various Civil Rights laws in the 1960’s, persons and businesses often cited “religious belief’ as a reason not to serve racial minorities. Courts ruled against these invocations of “religion”.
    Just where would people draw the line? Can a firefighter determine that he or she will not place a gay person or a member of a racial minority in an ambulance? Catholics are supposed to be against divorce. May Catholics cite “religion” and not accommodate divorced persons in their businesses? May Moslems refuse jews at the check-out of a store? Whjat if individuals did not want a Catholic room mate at college?
    Regrettably, our own hierarchy has greatly contributed to the confusion over the meaning of “religious liberty” in the instances of marginalized groups in American society by totally blurring the distinction between CIVIL (that is government recognized) marriage, and the religious sacrament of marriage which is variously defined by each religious denomination in the world. Until the very recent times, the Catholic Church always taught that all marriages performed outside the Catholic Church were illegitimate. This has allowed many a serial marrier to “repent” or to convert, and to easily marry in the Catholic Church when finally settling upon a Catholic spouse who wants a Catholic wedding. The fact is , nothing that any government or group or individual is doing in America can require any religion to marry someone. It is also a fact that the Catholic Church acknowledges that in a great many other countries Catholics are required to have a separate CIVIL marriage by a governmental representative, and if a Catholic wedding is desired, in a totally separate ceremony, with the couple following the Church rules of that diocese and country. In other words, until recently, the Catholic Church understood the difference between CIVIL marriage and religious marriage. In the US, the government has allowed the representatives of all religions to act as the certifier of the marriage on the marriage license, strictly as a convenience to the couples. The religions are all free not to do so. However, I think that religions all understand that if American couples need to start having two ceremonies, one civil and one religious, that a great many will opt to forego the religious ceremony, and only to have the required civil ceremony. No inclusion of civil marriage for gays will in any way require Catholics or any other religion to have such ceremonies unless their religious denomination permits it, as do many, but not Catholics.
    Why have our hierarchy so muddled the distinctions between civil and religious marriage? It reflects very poorly on the Catholic Church that it is so often looking for government assistance and government bail-outs for enforcing Catholic policies and doctrines on persons who are not Catholic in many instances , and in instances in which the hierarchy has little success in achieving adherence within Catholic ranks.
    Many in the Catholic Church pride themselves on making the Church inhospitable, judgmental, and unwelcoming. This helps to explain why the average age for Mass attendance continues to climb. It also explains why such a huge number of Catholic institutions continue to shut down at a time when there have never been more Catholics in our country, and a time in which the incomes of Catholics never have been higher than today. The average person knows how to smell clericalism, injustice, and misguided priorities of the hierarchy.
    Religious leaders and persons of faith would be much better guided in diffusing the hostility against the marginalized, and attempting to urge harmony and toleration in society. America is a DIVERSE society, a secular society which allows no preference to believers over non-believers. I suggest that it is healthier for society (and more Christ-like) to engage with all persons on a peaceful, respectful basis. I hear very little peace or respect from too many of our religious leaders when discussing these subjects.
    The reality is, too often religions decide matter as either “black or white”. Religions normally do not allow for gray. In a country as diverse as America, with so many races, ethnicities, and religions, the only sensible solution concerning civil rights such as a legal CIVIL marriage, is to treat all the same. If various religious denominations wish to exclude persons from its ceremonies or sacraments, it is their right. However, in the civil society, individuals should all work together.

  3. Antanas Lars says:

    Religious freedom does not give anyone a license to willy-nilly oppose laws or court decisions. For example, Quakers (pacifists) pay taxes that support wars. The Jehovah’s Witness members contribute monies by taxes for blood transfusions. Seventh Day Adventists in the armed forces must work on Saturdays. Mormons widely practiced polygamy and had to renounce it (at least officially) in order for Utah to become a state. A great many court decisions in both state and federal courts all over the country have dismissed the claims of individuals who have said that their religions do not allow them to do or not do certain things required by the human rights statutes and ordinances of many jurisdictions. We are not at all in a situation where today’s Catholics are the new bait for the lions in the colosseum. It is an irony that exceedingly doctrinaire individuals in the Catholic Church strive to find opportunities for Catholics to claim that their consciences are violated in secular society by various laws or situations, but that these same persons do not tolerate individual Catholics who cite their strongly held religious belief or consciences on matters within the Catholic Church. Exaggerating the dangers for religion or conscience will fall flat, just like the hollow Fortnight for Freedom that has been a total flop.