It’s Hobby Lobby time. While we all wait with bated breath to see if the Supreme Court ascribes religious thought, feeling, and conscience to a corporation in what would be a monumental act of anthropomorphism, here’s a quick rundown of just a few recent developments that point to an ascendant neo-revivalist view of religious freedom emerging in various legal, governmental and commercial sectors of society.
On May 6, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of local governments to hold prayers at public meetings. As a result villages, towns, cities and counties around the country are wrestling with this issue. A debate has been touched off that has seen council members in Sussex County, Delaware considering whether the invocation should be The Lord’s Prayer or the 23rd Psalm, the Chesterfield County, Virginia Board of Supervisors adopt a policy that would ban all prayers but those from ordained leaders of monotheistic religions, and even a claim from one fundamentalist pastor that the Marathon, Florida City Council’s decision to discontinue prayers at meetings due to lack of interest violates his freedom of religion. Googling prayer at town or public meetings brings up reports of dozens of local government bodies all over the United States introducing prayer or reinstating religious observances that had been discontinued due to protests and legal actions. The prayers are overwhelmingly Christian. At a recent webinar on “Government Prayer After the Town of Greece”, despite one speaker’s assurances that the Supreme Court has now made everything much easier for local officials, the general tenor of questions from attendees reflected confusion and uncertainty over their new obligations as overseers of religious practices in public settings. Concerns included how to handle prayer-givers who ventured into sermonizing, proselytizing or attacking other’s views, and whether municipalities that had long-ago settled on non-sectarian invocations would now be forced to scrap them for overtly religious musings. Ah,hear the dulcet tones of the siren song of excessive entanglement waft across the land.
In other news, On June 10, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on religious freedom. Of the four invited speakers, three were from conservative religious freedom advocacy groups. The fourth was Reverend Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. During the hearing, Representative Louie Gohmert, R., Texas, questioned Revered Lynn at length about the nature of Lynn’s personal religious beliefs and the extent of his commitment as a Christian. Gohmert repeatedly insisted that Lynn, if he is, in fact, a Christian, must admit that Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth, the life” and the only way to avoid Hell. Lynn’s more generous parsing of Christian philosophy failed to satisfy Congressman Gohmert, who apparently missed the irony of his pressuring a witness to spout the Representative-approved interpretation of Christian theology at a Congressional hearing on religious freedom.
Colleges and universities are also being confronted with the sterner, more in-your-face version of religious freedom. Bowdoin College recently voted to rescind official school recognition of a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian student group based on its repeated refusal to follow the campus non-discrimination policy that governs all school-approved groups. Although an unsanctioned organization can still meet informally, lack of official status results in loss of college resources including student activity fee funding, preference in reserving school facilities for group activities, and access to campus recruitment events. The Bowdoin Christian Fellowship maintains that “doctrinal standards” prevent it from being non-discriminatory in making leadership decisions. Other religiously focused groups have made the leap and abide by the policy, but the conservative Christians dispute whether anti-discrimination measures can be properly applied to faith-based organizations. Public and private educational institutions around the country are making similar rulings and facing the same controversy over the clash between religious accommodation and civil liberties.
On June 2, the United States Supreme Court denied cert in a petition brought by residents of Murfreesboro, Tennessee seeking to overturn county permission for construction of a new Islamic Center that had actually been built and occupied in 2012. On June 19, a Tennessee judge denied an application to overrule the town permit for a cemetery on the site of the Islamic Center. Unless the plaintiffs who brought the cemetery action choose to appeal, so ends the four-year saga of one particular group of residents, under the guise of protecting the country from terrorists and upholding religious norms, trying to thwart the efforts of another group to exercise its faith community’s beliefs in a lawfully permitted and constructed house of meeting and worship. Religious freedom gets tricky when someone else wants it too.
Finally, in seeking to have a corporation awarded the protection of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the owners of Hobby Lobby have been steadfast and forthright in maintaining the strength and sincerity of their own Christian beliefs as the basis for denying their employees access to contraceptives, and related reproductive and preventive health care. And who could question them? Their stores are closed on Sundays. They don’t sell little wine glasses for parties. And they are very committed to spreading the Word of God as they read it. For the last several months, Steve Green, owner of the Hobby Lobby chain of stores, has been embroiled in a bit of a controversy stemming from his efforts to get a school district in Oklahoma to adopt a Bible-based curriculum for public schools. Not a history course or a comparative cultural studies course, but a literal- interpretation-of-the-Bible-as-foundation-for-all-other-subjects curriculum. He pressured school board members to hold private meetings on the proposed curriculum outside the district to avoid public scrutiny and debate, a move which prompted charges that the state’s open meetings law had been violated. All of this is in total accord with the Green family worldview which the Greens seek to have the Supreme Court affirm. Religious freedom means the ability to impose one’s worldview on others. And any federal law that interferes with that level of control must be challenged and invalidated regardless of whether it protects rights and furthers important goals of critical public benefit and interest.
As more groups advocate for a philosophy of religious freedom that not only allows religious expression, but mandates religious involvement in the public realm and seeks a level of dominance that verges on the theocratic, the nation looks to its highest court as an arbiter of what is permissible and what is prohibited under the First Amendment. The religion clauses exist together as complements, each informing how the other is construed. The balance is a delicate one. As we await the crucial Hobby Lobby/ Conestoga Wood Specialties decision, let us hope that the Court maintains it.