Wait! Did The New York Times just argue that voluntary religious associations are dangerous?

So the New York Times has produced another story in its Beware the Fine Print series and it's must reading for those concerned about church-state issues.

This one -- "In Religious Arbitration, Scripture Is the Rule of Law" -- does a great job of warning American citizens to be careful before voluntarily signing on the dotted line to do business (or working for) companies and institutions that write "Christian arbitration" clauses into their contracts.

What, that's not the point of the story at all. Sorry about that.

Truth be told, I'm having trouble figuring out the bottom line in this long and ambitious story. Clearly citizens have a right to join voluntary associations. Right? And clearly citizens who sign legal contracts -- of their own free will -- should be expected to honor them. Right? This is true even if these citizens change their minds about the doctrines and commitments that they voluntarily agreed to honor at the time they signed on the bottom line. 

I mean, a legal contract is a contract. I think the Times team, in this story, shows that these kinds of voluntary association contracts -- whether among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Scientologists or perhaps even New York Times employees -- can be abused. It's a good thing to warn people to be more careful about fine print. But is that what this story is about? I don't think so. It appears that the Times editors think that putting faith elements in these kinds of voluntary contracts is uniquely evil and dangerous. Really?

Let's look at some passages to see what the Times folks are trying to say. Here's is how things start:

A few months before he took a toxic mix of drugs and died on a stranger’s couch, Nicklaus Ellison wrote a letter to his little sister.
He asked for Jolly Ranchers, Starburst and Silly Bandz bracelets, some of the treats permitted at the substance abuse program he attended in Florida. Then, almost as an aside, Mr. Ellison wrote about how the Christian-run program that was supposed to cure his drug and alcohol problem had instead “de-gayed” him.
“God makes all things new,” Mr. Ellison wrote in bright green ink. “The weirdest thing is how do I come out as straight after all this time?”
To his family and friends, Mr. Ellison’s professed identity change was just one of many clues that something had gone wrong at the program, Teen Challenge, where he had been sent by a judge as an alternative to jail.

In this case, everything hinges on the phrase "had been sent by a judge."

The implication is that an agent of the state sent Ellison to this program against his will, as opposed to him making a choice to voluntarily associate with the Teen Challenge program. Hold that thought.

... When his family sued Teen Challenge in 2012 hoping to uncover what had happened, they quickly hit a wall. When he was admitted to the program, at age 20, Mr. Ellison signed a contract that prevented him and his family from taking the Christian group to court.
Instead, his claim had to be resolved through a mediation or arbitration process that would be bound not by state or federal law, but by the Bible. “The Holy Scripture shall be the supreme authority,” the rules of the proceedings state.

Now, the story makes the case that Teen Challenge was a more attractive option than the other available legal options -- such as a year behind bars. Thus, it is possible to argue that Ellison made a choice between two bad options, choosing to sign a contract that legal linked him, and his family, to a Christian arbitration system.

That concern -- to what degree was his choice voluntary -- is a great hook for a news story. But that does not appear to be what the Times piece is about. It seems to think that there is something evil about religious believers choosing to create these kinds of contracts in the first place.

It would also be a great story hook if there was evidence that religious believers WERE HIDING these clauses and somehow tricking people into signing these contracts. But that doesn't seem to be the central issue here, either.

Again, what is the actual thesis? That voluntary associations -- at least linked to religious doctrine -- should not exist and that people should be actively prevented, by the state one must assume, from choosing to sign these contracts? How does one get to that option without undercutting the right to religious liberty, as expressed in the existence of doctrinally defined voluntary associations?

Let's keep searching for the Times thesis:

Pamela Prescott battled for years to prove that she had been unjustly fired from a private school in Louisiana. The crux of her case -- which wound through arbitration, a federal appeals court and state court -- was references in her employment contract to verses from the Bible.
In legal circles, those cases, along with the Ellison suit, are considered seminal examples of how judges have consistently upheld religious arbitrations over secular objections. ...
More than anything, the cases show the power of arbitration clauses. An investigation by The New York Times found that companies have used the clauses to create an alternate system of justice. Americans are being forced out of court and into arbitration for everything from botched home renovations to medical malpractice.
By adding a religious component, companies are taking the privatization of justice a step further. Proponents of religious arbitration said the process allowed people of faith to work out problems using shared values, achieving not just a settlement but often reconciliation. Yet some lawyers and plaintiffs said that for some groups, religious arbitration may have less to do with honoring a set of beliefs than with controlling legal outcomes.

Note the implication: Prescott was FORCED to work at this school and, thus, sign her teaching contract? She did not make a personal choice to work there, which would mean honoring the doctrines of the school? And was her religious private school really a "company," as opposed to a ministry with a doctrinal code?

Was Teen Challenge a "company" or a ministry? (Yes, there are real questions about whether the state should have steered, to one degree or another, people into such a ministry as an option following a legal proceeding. I've already said that's a valid story to investigate.)

However, the thesis of the article seems to be that the EXISTENCE of these clauses -- even in voluntary contracts -- is a bad, if not a dangerous thing. Am I missing something?

Consider this summary material:

When word got out that some of the early Christians had strayed, the Apostle Paul was concerned. Among their grave offenses: incest, prostitution and suing one another in court. Christians should not take their problems before “unbelievers,” Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians. Disputes should be resolved inside the church.
Centuries later, Paul’s writings inspired a group of lawyers in Los Angeles to develop the practice of Christian conciliation. The group’s work ultimately gave rise to Peacemaker Ministries, a nonprofit that devised a legal process that draws on the Bible.
The peacemaker method is used by private schools, Christian lawyers and others. Clauses requiring Americans to use Christian arbitration instead of civil court now appear in thousands of agreements like the one Mr. Ellison signed with Teen Challenge.

So the state should prevent the creation of voluntary associations that contain, well, Jewish law and doctrines? How about Muslim law, in voluntary associations created by and for Muslims? The Times piece raises the issue of contracts in Scientology, which is certainly a new religious group that has been accused to limiting the true freedom of its members at the level of agreements and contracts.

But, again, is the Times really suggesting that the state regulate, limit or even erase these kinds of contracts? Citizens do not have a right to create these associations and to choose to sign legal documents related to them? The story seems to go beyond a basic concern against such contracts being abused, perhaps through such clauses being hidden.

That is the thesis here? Did I miss something?

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