Post-Supremes debate begins: Freedom to 'teach' faith or 'free exercise' of religious beliefs?

Once again, I was on the road when all heckfire broke out on the religion-news beat, leaving other GetReligionistas to dive into the breach after the U.S. Supreme Court's long-predicted 5-4 decision -- complete with majority opinion sermon from Justice Anthony Kennedy -- approving same-sex marriage from coast to coast.

Much of the coverage was a celebratory as one could have expected in this post-Kellerism age, especially in the broadcast news coverage.

Click here for an online summary of that from the conservative Media Research Center which, to its credit, offered readers transcripts of some of the broadcast items so they could read the scripts for themselves and look for signs of journalistic virtues such as fairness and balance. A sign of things to come? Among the major networks, the most balanced presentations on this story were at NBC. Will that draw protests to NBC leaders?

At the time of the ruling, I was attending a meeting that included some lawyers linked to Christian higher education, one of the crucial battleground areas in American life in the wake of this ruling. There, and online, it quickly became apparent that the key to the decision -- in terms of religious liberty -- is whether one accepts Kennedy's general, not-very-specific acceptance of First Amendment freedoms linked to religion or whether, along with Chief Justice John Roberts, one noted that Kennedy left unsaid.

Journalists must note this, if they want to prepare for the next round of battles in -- as described in previous coverage of the HHS mandate wars -- the tense church-state territory located between the secular market place and actual religious sanctuaries. That middle ground? Voluntary associations that are defined by stated doctrines, while interacting with public life to one degree or another. Think colleges, schools, hospitals, day-care centers, parachurch ministries, adoption agencies that have, for students and staffs, doctrinal covenants that define their common lives and teachings.

Think Little Sisters of the Poor. Think Gordon College.

Optimists living in that territory will say this: Kennedy pointed to the First Amendment as protection for religious traditionalists. There are multitudes of judicial precedents establishing that the First Amendment, as stated, guarantees the "free exercise" of religious faith and there is a long shelf of opinions establishing what that means. If Kennedy put the First Amendment in play, then name those rights and claim them.

But there is another way to read the majority opinion and journalists must know that, if they plan to prepare for future developments. Justice Roberts noted this, of course.

So what are religious leaders saying? I recommend this online feature written by former GetReligionista Mark Kellner for The Deseret News in which there are links to a wide variety of documents and statements released after the court's decision. This section is crucial:

The decision itself hints at constitutional protections for religious conscience. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered."
But Chief Justice John Roberts responded in his dissenting opinion, "The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to 'advocate' and 'teach' their views of marriage. The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to 'exercise' religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses."
These conflicting views from the high court "will tee up some questions squarely," according to Robin Fretwell Wilson, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, such as what the rules should be for faith-based organizations with regard to adoptions or moral conduct standards at religiously affiliated universities.
While almost all sides believe individual clergy, congregations and denominations are protected by the First Amendment's religious freedom guarantees when it comes to which marriages a religious community can choose to recognize, questions about faith-based organizations that are not houses of worship are almost guaranteed to arise.

And there you have it. It is possible to teach one's faith while sitting safely inside one's home or one's religious sanctuary (or perhaps in whispers while sitting in the back of a bus, with a fellow believer). The "free exercise" of faith implies, well, actually acting on one's faith in daily life -- period.

Kallner's feature offers many, many links to leaders -- left and right -- who are beginning to discuss and outline the parameters of this very conflict.

Dig in.

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