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Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

(COMMENTARY) During the year-end news rush, many or most media – and The Religion Guy as well – missed a significant development in the ongoing religious liberty wars that will be playing out in 2019 and well beyond.

On Dec. 10, Business Leaders in Christ filed a federal lawsuit against the University of Iowa for removing the group’s on-campus recognition on grounds of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. This club for business students requires its leaders to uphold traditional Christian beliefs, including that “God’s intention for a sexual relationship is to be between a husband and wife.” See local coverage here.

These sorts of disputes across the nation are thought to be a factor in religious citizens’ support for Donald Trump’s surprise election as president. And the Iowa matter is a significant test case because the Trump Department of Justice filed in support of the club Dec. 21, in line with a 2017 religious liberty policy issued by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The DoJ’s court brief is a forthright presentation of the argument the Iowa club and other such organizations make for freedom of association, freedom of speech and “free exercise of religion” under the Constitution. Contact: Eric Treene of the Civil Rights Division, 202–514-2228 or eric.treene@usdoj.gov.

More broadly, what does the American nation believe these days regarding religious freedom?

That’s the theme of a related and also neglected story, the Nov. 29 issuance of a new “American Charter of Freedom of Religion and Conscience” (info and text here).

The years-long negotiations on this text were sponsored by the Religious Freedom Institute, which evolved from a Georgetown University initiative, and Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.

The Religion Guy finds this document important, although at 5,000 words needlessly repetitive. In essence, it asserts that freedom of religiously grounded thought, observance and public action, and the equal rights of conscience for non-believers, are fundamental to the American heritage and the well-being of all societies.

Adopting lingo from federal court rulings, the charter says these freedoms are not absolute. But any “substantial burden” limiting them “must be justified by a compelling governmental interest” and implemented by “the least restrictive” means possible. The charter also endorses the separation of religion and state.

It is remarkable — and discouraging to The Guy — that basic Bill of Rights tenets even need to be reiterated in this dramatic fashion, because that tells us they are too often neglected – or rejected.

The charter has won a notably varied list of initial endorsers because it purposely avoids taking stands on the “sometimes bitter debates” over how to apply these principles, in particular clashes between religious traditionalists and the LGBTQ community. Think Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado. Says the charter, “although it is not always possible to uphold both non-discrimination and religious liberty claims in particular cases, both claims should be taken seriously, and both sides should seek common ground.”

Of special significance is the individuals who have joined to endorse the charter, especially those from U.S. Islam, which has rarely engaged in this sort of project alongside believers from other religions.

There is an important story here. Among signers are President Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America, and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, co-founder of Zaytuna College, the faith’s first liberal arts college in the U.S. with regional accreditation.

Other notable participants include Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black (who is Seventh-day Adventist); Presiding Bishop Charles Blake of the Church of God in Christ, the largest African-American denomination; Charles Haynes of Freedom Forum; eminent legal theorist Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia; legendary church historian Martin Marty of the University of Chicago; top Southern Baptist spokesman Russell Moore; evangelical activist Alan Sears of Alliance Defending Freedom; and General Counsel Marc Stern of the American Jewish Committee.

Also Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs. For Catholics, there’s leading lay intellectual Robert George of Princeton University on the list, though no-one from the church hierarchy. Also, no prominent “mainline” Protestant executives have (as yet) signed up.

For context, journalists will want to tap sources that insist religious liberty (in scare quotes) is an illicit power grab by the religious right.

Note this symptomatic 2016 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (.pdf here), or typical broadsides by Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, liberal evangelical Jonathan Merritt, Andrew Seidel at Religion News Service or Katherine Stewart, care of The New York Times.

On the other side, note Mary Eberstadt’s book “It's Dangerous to Believe” (Harper, 2016).

This column was originally published on Get Religion.
Photo by Tony Webster.

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