Time searches for red line between good religious liberty and bad religious liberty


Day after day, that must-read Religion News Service email digest offers readers an interesting collection of links to news about religion, politics, entertainment, gossip and sex -- almost always delivered with some wit, which veers off into snark, from time to time.

That's fine, since your GetReligionistas appreciate the occasional bit of snark, especially when a news product is clearly defined as commentary. Anyway, here is a timely sample: 

Now that most people in the country live in states that allow gay marriage, and it looks as if the momentum for same-sex marriage is growing yet stronger, those who oppose it are searching for a new front, writes Reuters. Many of them have found it in a fight for “religious freedom,”defined in some cases as the right not to bake a wedding cake for lesbians.

Or the right of a lesbian Episcopalian -- as a matter of conscience and doctrine -- to refuse to do photography for a Catholic ministry that encourages gays and lesbians to live chaste lives, in keeping with Catholic teachings. Or whatever. You know, that whole First Amendment thing.

Anyway, it is clear that some journalists are struggling to find that bright red line between good religious liberty and bad religious liberty.

That task used to be so much easier, when it was simply neo-Nazis fighting for the right to march through a Chicago suburb full of elderly Holocaust survivors. Now you have poverty-fighting nuns trying to avoid paying for birth control that violates the Catholic doctrines that define their own ministry. Times are tough.

You can see the struggle -- right out in the open -- in the Time magazine essay that ran under the headline, "Meet the Lawyers Fighting for Religious Freedom Today Before the Supreme Court."

Gregory Houston Holt wants to grow a half-inch beard but he can’t, and that’s a problem. Holt is Muslim and he believes that wearing a beard is a requirement of his Salafi faith. But he’s serving a life sentence for murder in Arkansas, where the Department of Corrections has banned beards as a potential security threat. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Holt’s case, and just as interesting as the outcome of his claim is who will argue it for him. Holt, who now goes by the name Abdul Maalik Muhammad, has put his faith not in a big name first amendment litigator nor in the secularist American Civil Liberties Union, but in the lawyers of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Holt’s faith in the Becket Fund is well founded. A small, non-profit public interest law firm, with just eleven litigating attorneys and a $5 million annual budget, the Fund is a rising star in Washington. Everyone from unknowns like Holt to corporate giants like Hobby Lobby, which this year won expanded religious exemptions from Obamacare, turns to Becket for high profile cases at the high court. Its lawyers are most famous for arguing the often politically incorrect view that the constitution’s protection of the free exercise of religion has been eclipsed in recent years by government deference to other parts of the constitution. That’s no easy task, since arguments over religious liberty can be some of the thorniest, and most heated, in America.

As one Georgetown University professor states the matter, later in the story: "In many ways I think of them as God’s ACLU."

This only raises the obvious question, which remains unexplored: What happened to, well, the old ACLU, on these kinds of religious liberty issues? What happened to the old liberal coalition that backed religious freedom?

This essay also, a rarity these days, includes a solid paragraph or two of historical background, which is then connected to current events. Yes. Honest. Really. Believe it or not.

Every generation has its own fight over religious freedom -- it’s a debate that has driven the American story from the day the pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower. The influx of Catholic immigrants after the Civil War prompted the rise of the Blaine amendments to stop public funding of religious education. Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to salute the flag sparked national debates during World War II. Public school prayer, nativity displays, and the pledge of allegiance prompted the fights of the later 20th century.
It was in the midst of those debates, in 1994, that Kevin “Seamus” Hasson founded the Becket Fund. Hasson, a Catholic lawyer specializing in religious liberty law at Williams and Connolly, felt that the conversation about religion in America was becoming one great non sequitur -- one side was arguing that religion was not a societal good while the other insisted that America was a Christian country. Hasson believed that religious liberty comes not from the government or from faith itself, but rather from human dignity.

Journalists! There is the hook for future coverage, right there.

Who gets to define what is and what is not "human dignity"? Is the almighty state in charge of drawing that bright red line or is the process of defining human dignity included in that whole, you know, "free exercise" of religious freedom thing? You know, the Letters from a Birmingham Jail, the radical claims of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the conscience claims of Saint John Paul II and all that.

A liberal interpretation of religious freedom used to be the norm among America's liberal elites. That is why the Time team is struggling to figure out why a conservative firm is suddenly the go-to operation -- with a staff of First Amendment lawyers from various world religions -- for those pleading for the rights of doctrinally orthodox Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants and, yes, a Santeria priest in Texas.

So what is the cause of the current tensions that have turned liberalism on its head, confusing so many talented journalists? That's easy to spot. Religion is clashing with the most powerful sacrament in post-Sixties American culture. Which government-protected rights will the U.S. Supreme Court now rank higher than the First Amendment, higher than freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion?

America’s rapidly shifting views on sexuality, and the government’s willingness to protect same-sex relationships, will soon conflict with groups that believe their religious freedom includes the right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. ...
For now, Becket’s small team of lawyers is already working on some 40 cases. Firm leaders say it has no plans to expand, instead maintaining its focus on finding and litigating high-impact cases. 

So what is missing from this interesting news report?

Simply stated, where are the voices of leaders on the new moral and cultural left? Where are their critiques of the Becket Fund team?

In other words, as your GetReligionistas often say, where is the other side of the debate over a broad, liberal interpretation of the First Amendment? Where are the people (nod to funkmaster Prince) formerly known as the First Amendment left?

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