The Perilous State of Religious Liberty

Religious liberty in the United States is in peril. Many of the people empowered to decide which behaviors merit civil protections and which do not are not religious people. They fail to understand religious liberty because they do not understand the religious life.

That they do not understand the religious life is clear from the message that is repeated among federal and state legislatures, courts and executives: religion is fine as long as it is private. What you do in your home and church, synagogue and mosque, is up to you. But when you step into the public square, your religious protections are no longer guaranteed.

This is to misunderstand the religious life, which ceases to be a life and becomes a mere hobby whenever it is confined to home and church. By its very nature, the religious life extends to everything a person does: prayer, yes, but also work, recreation, entertainment, socialization, education, and politics, to name a few. As early as St. Paul, the watchword was, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” The Founding Fathers – even the irreligious one – understood this to be the nature of the religious life.

In the early years of the republic, the protection of religious liberties was at the top of the American agenda. The very first amendment to the constitution, adopted in 1791, was about protecting religious liberty. In those days, the conversation about gender and sexual freedoms had not been joined. Sex was private, religion was public. But in many ways, the opposite is true today: sex is public and religion is private. Sex is increasingly protected in the public square while religion is only safe in the home and the sanctuary.

There are reasons for this change. The general loss of a creation theology, the ascendancy of tolerance as the chief of virtues, and the replacement of the church by the school as the provider of moral education have all contributed to the current indifference toward religious liberty. Then there were the events of 9/11, which moved some people from indifference to mistrust and even hatred of religion. The results of this ideological shift are now becoming apparent.

Consider the course taken by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. Its public policy states that all places of public accommodation must acquiesce to state laws regarding gender and sexual orientation. If a church is deemed a place of public accommodation, it must open its restrooms to people based on their chosen gender identity rather than their sex at birth.

The policy statement includes a list of questions meant to clarify the purpose and extent of the law. It specifically asks, “Does This Law Apply To Churches?” It answers that religious institutions are exempt with respect “to a bona fide religious purpose.” However, it subsequently states that if an institution “offers some services, facilities, or goods to the general public, it will be treated as a public accommodation for those services.”

Does this mean that churches that house the homeless, that allow non-members to use their facilities for weddings or funerals, or that host community meetings are in violation of Iowa law? And what if churches allow non-members to attend concerts or worship services (as they all do)? Do they become a “public accommodation,” and thereby lose their protection as a religious organization?

Let’s admit that the restroom dispute has bordered on hysteria. Further, let’s grant that the state has an obligation to protect the rights of all its citizens. Nevertheless, the Iowa policy is a sign that the freedom accorded religious expression is currently valued below the freedom granted to other forms of expression, particularly ones related to sexuality.

It’s likely that the furor over gender identity and restroom use will die away in the months and years to come. The sooner the better. One only hopes that religious liberty won’t die along with it.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/9/2016

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