Religious liberty debate: People 'in the middle' need to speak up, panelists say

President Donald Trump speaks during a National Day of Prayer event at the White House in Washington May 4 before signing an executive order on religious liberty. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)
President Donald Trump speaks during a National Day of Prayer event at the White House in Washington May 4 before signing an executive order on religious liberty. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)

by Peter Feuerherd

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When it comes to the First Amendment's guarantee not to prohibit the free establishment or exercise of religion, many Americans in a polarized political climate just don't get it.

That was a core message delivered by speakers at a May 16 symposium on "The Promise of Religious Liberty in a Pluralistic World" at Fordham University here. The event was sponsored by the Jesuit school's Center on Religion and Culture.

Religious liberty was a common principle understood by most Americans, said James McCartin, director of the center, who introduced the program. "Those days are past," he said.

Instead, religious liberty has become a weapon in the wide array of culture-war issues invoked by both liberals and conservatives to advance various polemics. But neither side fully comprehends the underlying principle of an American bedrock, said Thomas Berg, professor of law and public policy at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.

The free exercise of religion, he said, "implies more than the freedom to worship in the church, temple or mosque." It also extends to the right to form communities based on religious principles, he said. Sometimes those principles conflict with wider societal concerns and prejudices, resulting in religion being invoked in the culture wars.

President Donald Trump supporters who embrace a ban on Muslims entering the United States or who oppose the freedom of Muslims to construct mosques and religious centers fail to appreciate religious liberty. Liberals who opposed the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision, in which a religious freedom principle was applied to a business owner opposed to paying to insure contraceptive devices said to cause abortion, also fail to recognize religious liberty rights, said Berg.

While liberals oppose the Hobby Lobby decision, they also are supportive when courts find that Native Americans have a religious liberty right to sacred land coveted by energy developers.

Asma Uddin, director of strategy for the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom, said that Muslims in particular regularly have their religious liberty rights abridged, whether it be via government surveillance of worship, Trump's executive orders targeting Muslim countries for travel bans, or regulations prohibiting Muslim women from wearing head scarves in public schools.

A quarter of all religious land-use zoning disputes in the United States now involve Muslim groups applying to build mosques or community centers, even if they only represent about one percent of all Americans, said Uddin.

Charity Sr. Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association of America, said that the concept of religious liberty is "abused by the extremes" in the culture war debates. She found that to be true during the discussions over the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, which the Catholic Health Association endorsed.

Her group successfully fought for a provision that mandated that the government not pay for abortions, consistent with federal law of the Hyde Amendment. The group got an executive order from then-President Barack Obama backing that position.

"The law is clear," said Keehan. The law, however, does provide for contraception coverage, a part opposed by other Catholic groups, including the Little Sisters of the Poor. The order has argued in court for a religious liberty right not to participate in what it calls the funding of contraception for its employees, even though a provision in the law allows the leaders of religious institutions that sign a waiver to opt out.

Despite all the noise over the issues, religious liberty is, relatively speaking, a minor issue in the United States, said Ani Sarkissian, a professor of political science at Michigan State University and an associate scholar for the Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. She said that 75 percent of people live in countries where there is severe repression of religious liberty.

The best comparison with the United States is with European countries with a similar tradition of religious tolerance. But there are differences, she said.

In many European countries, particularly those with state-sponsored churches, "religion is part of the state apparatus that works closely with the state." In some countries, such as Germany, the state acts as a tax collector for churches. Governments routinely fund religious buildings and schools.

In exchange for that support, religious groups in Europe have conceded the right of the state to regulate their schools and other institutions.

Both Europe and the United States continue to deal with the challenge of a growing Muslim population and how religious liberty claims should be extended to minority religions. Islam on both sides of the Atlantic has run into hostility, including, in France, with laws that prohibit the public wearing of certain religious garb.

Vincent Rougeau, dean of the Boston College Law School, who has worked with minority religious leaders in London, a city which now has a Muslim mayor, said religious liberty issues in Europe often involve conflicting secular vs. religious world views. This creates a paradox, he said, as officially secular France has resisted populist politics seen as intolerant, while the United States and the United Kingdom have elected nationalistic politicians and passed the Brexit initiative.

The push for secularism has affected American Catholic health care, said Keehan.

She said that there is increasing pressure on Catholic hospitals to perform procedures — such as abortion and sex-reassignment treatments and surgeries — that are contrary to Catholic teaching.

"Any procedure I want done you must be willing to do at your hospital," she said about the argument of those challenging the right of Catholic hospitals not to perform morally problematic procedures.

Pressure to get Catholic hospitals to perform sex-reassignment procedures should be resisted by such institutions, if they are to be true to their religious beliefs, she said. At the same time, she emphasized, transgender people should be made to feel welcome at Catholic institutions.

Keehan urged respect on all sides in the religious liberty debate. She said the Little Sisters of the Poor should be respected for their position, even if other Catholic groups have determined that they can support the Affordable Care Act.

She said the goal of religious liberty is "to let people do the best they can do with their own conscience. … There is not just one way to witness," she said.

Panelists agreed that religious liberty needs to be taken out of the realm of diatribes invoked by militant secularists and their opponents who would impose religious beliefs on others.

They invoked the need for dialogue and the avoidance of stereotypes. Uddin made the case for more self-knowledge of religious traditions, noting that she works to remind Muslims of the entire breadth of their religious teachings, working against extremism. Berg argued for more education in public schools about religion.

Berg said those who understand religious liberty and the rights of the wider society need to speak up. Too often, their views are missed as extremists dominate the debate.

"The people in the middle can't be silent anymore. They have to say that with the kind of passion that the extremists do," he said.

[Peter Feuerherd is a correspondent for NCR's Field Hospital series on parish life and is a professor of journalism at St. John's University, New York.​]

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