Through the years, your GetReligionistas have made quite a few references (like this one, for example) to a remarkable period of time in American church-state history when a strong, diverse coalition stood together on religious liberty (no scare quotes) issues. This coalition ranged from Pat Robertson over to the Unitarians, with the Baptist Joint Committee somewhere in the middle.
It was a remarkable time for First Amendment liberalism, as classically defined. After all, it would be hard to call the Clinton White House right wing. This coalition stood together in the development of equal access rules protecting religious expression in the public square and, earlier, in the famous case protecting the rights of neo-Nazis to march through a Chicago suburb that included many Holocaust survivors. The coalition stood united -- supporting religious freedom at the global level -- to back the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
Some journalists (hurrah!) even noted this at the time, every now and then. Here is a sighting of this coalition, in a 1993 New York Times story about the slam-dunk passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act:
President Clinton hailed the new law at the signing ceremony, saying that it held government "to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone's free exercise of religion." ...
His sentiments were echoed by many other members of an unusual coalition of liberal, conservative and religious groups that had pressed for the new law. The coalition included the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Council of Churches, the American Jewish Congress, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Mormon Church, the Traditional Values Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union.
This brings us to the recent 8-1 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a 17-year-old Muslim in Tulsa, Okla., who was rejected for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch because of her head scarf. Read this piece of The Los Angeles Times coverage carefully:
The court’s liberal justices have long championed religious minorities in discrimination cases. But as Christian conservatives have more frequently found themselves on the defensive over issues such as abortion and gay rights, the court’s conservatives have also embraced claims of religious liberty.
Last year, a conservative majority ruled that the religious owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores did not have to comply with a government mandate to offer certain birth control methods as part of the company’s health plan.
What in the heckfire is that all about? Isn't there anyone in that newsroom who can use a search engine, when it comes time to research religious liberty issues?
No, wait a minute. Here is what happened, maybe.
This Los Angeles Times passage addresses conservatives on THE COURT alone, which is another way of saying Justice Antonin Scalia. Now, it is true -- referring to Scalia -- that his views have certainly evolved and his language in this head-scarf ruling is revelatory and a major news hook in this story. If that is the case, then the key point to make is that it took a while for this key voice on the court -- for reasons that will always be debated -- to pick up on what had long been happening in the public square (and in pews, liberal and conservative) on religious liberty issues.
Of course, that would require knowing that the 1990s era coalition existed. Instead, what we get here is:
The decision was welcomed by a wide variety of religious groups, including Sikhs, Orthodox Jews, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
This is new? That's a rather short list, actually, and doesn't show the true clout of earlier church-state coalition that reunites when issues focus on religious liberty issues linked to beards in prisons or the use of Eagle feathers in Native American religious rites (hello, M.Z. Hemingway).
The question, of course, is what happens to this coalition when religious liberty collides with, well, Woodstock and the Sexual Revolution.
Let's go back to the other Times, over in New York, and its coverage of the head-scarf case. What happened there, in terms of recalling the earlier left-right coalition?
Justice Scalia elaborated ... in his written opinion. “An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions,” he wrote.
Groups that represent religious minorities, including Muslims, Sikhs and Jews, applauded the ruling. They said it would help protect their members against employment discrimination based on their members’ religious attire, head coverings or beards.
Well now, there we go again. I guess Southern Baptists are a religious minority, along with some of the other groups that applauded this decision. But maybe it would have been too much to cite their stance on this kind of case. That might bend some stereotypes.
Still, it's hard not to ask why the editors in the world's most powerful newsroom missed the significance of the old Clinton-era religious liberty coalition reuniting on this case and winning over key justices.
It wasn't hard to find the cheers, on both the conservative and progressive sides of Baptist life:
Hollyn Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, welcomed the majority’s decision.
“The court today confirmed the fundamental principle in Title VII’s ban on religious discrimination in employment,” Hollman said. “Neither a person’s religion nor the potential need to accommodate a religious practice should be a basis for denying a prospective employee a job.”
In December the BJC joined more than a dozen other religious liberty and civil rights groups asking the Supreme Court to overturn the 10th Circuit’s ruling in favor of Abercrombie.
Russell Moore, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, described Monday’s Supreme Court decision on Twitter as “a big win for religious freedom.”