Hey AP: Where is religious left on religious liberty issues?

A long, long time ago, 1998 to be precise, I wrote a column marking the 10th anniversary of my weekly "On Religion" column for the Scripps Howard News Service. I opened it with an observation about one of the major changes I had witnessed on the religion beat during the previous 20 years or so. Add that all up and we're talking about events in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. At the top, I noted that, when covering news events:

I kept seeing a fascinating cast of characters at events centering on faith, politics and morality. A pro-life rally, for example, would feature a Baptist, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi and a cluster of conservative Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans. Then, the pro-choice counter-rally would feature a “moderate” Baptist, a Catholic activist or two, a Reform rabbi and mainline Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans.

Similar line-ups would appear at many rallies linked to gay rights, sex-education programs and controversies in media, the arts and even science. Along with other journalists, I kept reporting that today’s social issues were creating bizarre coalitions that defied historic and doctrinal boundaries. After several years of writing about “strange bedfellows,” it became obvious that what was once unique was now commonplace.

This led me to the work of a famous scholar who was seeing the same pattern:

Then, in 1986, a sociologist of religion had an epiphany while serving as a witness in a church-state case in Mobile, Ala. The question was whether “secular humanism” had evolved into a state-mandated religion, leading to discrimination against traditional “Judeo-Christian” believers. Once more, two seemingly bizarre coalitions faced off in the public square.

“I realized something there in that courtroom. We were witnessing a fundamental realignment in American religious pluralism,” said James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia. “Divisions that were deeply rooted in our civilization were disappearing, divisions that had for generations caused religious animosity, prejudice and even warfare. It was mind- blowing. The ground was moving.”

The old dividing lines centered on issues such as the person of Jesus Christ, church tradition and the Protestant Reformation. But these new interfaith coalitions were fighting about something even more basic -- the nature of truth and moral authority.

Two years later, Hunter began writing “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America,” in which he declared that America now contains two basic world views, which he called “orthodox” and “progressive.” The orthodox believe it’s possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to “resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life.”

Why bring this up? This is the first thing I thought of the other day when GetReligion readers started sending in links to an Associated Press report noting that -- prepare to be shocked -- various groups in America are taking different stands on same-sex marriage. Thus, they are also taking different stands on some of the public-square issues linked to the right of doctrinal traditionalists to live out their beliefs in the practical details of public life.

In other words, the doctrinal, philosophical divisions of the "culture wars" era are now affecting how our nation's leaders view religious liberty and, specifically, the free exercise clause in the First Amendment.

Surprised? There is no need to be. The problem is that this story paints this as a division primarily between religious people and secular people. More on that in a minute.

Now, here's another key fact that is in the background of this Associated Press news feature. Truth is, the old coalitions that used to support religious liberty have been shattered -- especially the remarkable left-right coalition that worked with the Clinton White House on issues of "equal access" and religious freedom in the workplace. That change in the legal landscape is now affecting debates among traditionalists about how to defend their beliefs on marriage and family (and religious liberty). Here is some key material near the top of the story:

... (T)raditional religious leaders, their supporters and the First Amendment attorneys advising them are divided over strategy and goals, raising questions about how much they can influence the outcome:

* Several religious liberty experts say conservative faith groups should take a pragmatic approach given the advances in gay rights. Offer to stop fighting same-sex marriage laws in exchange for broad religious exemptions, these attorneys say. "If they need to get those religious accommodations, they're going to have to move now," said Robin Fretwell Wilson, a family law specialist at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Critics reject the idea as a premature surrender.

* Religious leaders lobbying for exemptions can't agree how broad they should be. A major difference is over whether for-profit companies should qualify for a faith-based exception.

* Some religious liberty advocates and faith leaders are telling houses of worship they could be forced to host gay weddings, with their clergy required to officiate. The Louisiana Baptist Convention is advising congregations to rewrite their bylaws to state they only allow heterosexual marriage ceremonies, and the Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious liberty group that opposes same-sex marriage, is advising the same. But legal experts across a spectrum of views on gay rights say it can't happen given strong First Amendment protections for what happens inside the sanctuary.

"A few people at both ends of the spectrum have talked about religion and religious freedom in a way that is really destructive," said Brian Walsh, executive director of the Ethics & Public Policy's American Religious Freedom program which has formed legislative caucuses so far in 18 states. "I think they've made it polarized and difficult to understand."

All kinds of fine details get mashed in some of those summaries. For example, the question is whether individual owners of for-profit companies (think Hobby Lobby) retain freedom of conscience to set policies for their own companies. Also, few people are questioning freedom of worship (that's the Obama White House stand), the question is the status of court cases that have established wider Constitutional rights of religious liberty.

But, as a whole, this story provides a quick summary of the landscape of the arguments that are taking place among those defending religious liberty.

So what is missing? Near the end of the story, readers learn:

Many cities and states have anti-discrimination ordinances that include sexual orientation, setting up fines or other penalties for failing to comply. Absent an exemption, objectors may have to shut down their businesses or give up their jobs, religious leaders say. They argue losing your livelihood is too harsh a punishment for views on such a core religious issue as marriage.

But gay rights advocates say this argument puts too heavy a burden on gays and lesbians, and presents them with an unfair set of choices.

"In some states, the price of equality in marriage has been agreeing to give up protections against discrimination as part of the negotiations," said Jenny Pizer, senior counsel for the gay rights group Lambda Legal. "In ways, I think, other politically vulnerable groups are not required to pay that price."

And there's more on the cultural left:

Jonathan Rauch, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is one of the very few gay-rights supporters publicly urging fellow advocates to be more magnanimous. He argues that offering religious accommodations makes sense politically.

"I think there's a real risk that we will overreach and set up the other side to portray itself as the victim if we decide we have to stamp out every instance of religious based anti-gay discrimination," Rauch said. "I also think that there's a moral reason. What the gay rights movement is fighting for is not just equality for gays but freedom of conscience to live openly according to their identity. I don't think we should be in the business of being as intolerant of others as they were to us."

Others reject such accommodations.

Rose Saxe, an ACLU senior staff attorney, said the call for a middle ground, "while trying to sound reasonable, is really asking for a license to discriminate." And the Rev. Darlene Nipper of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said religious groups have another choice: They can accept same-sex marriage.

So what is missing? As is often the case, this story assumes that this debate is taking place between traditional religious believers and a secular coalition of gay-rights advocates. In other words, the story omits the "Culture Wars" factor in the religious landscape.

Where are the views of religious liberals in this story? Where are the leaders of the denominations that actively favor same-sex marriage and what they view as the modernization of both ancient religious doctrines and the nation's approach to the First Amendment? This is not, trust me, just a debate between religious people and secular people.

So the camp of the "orthodox" made it into this story. Where are the believers in the camp of the "progressives"? What are they saying about these religious-liberty cases?

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