In drafting the documents that would shape a new nation more than 200 years ago, the Founding Fathers enshrined in their First Amendment an order to legislators: Make “no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
It’s a concept that has since proved complicated, to say the least.
U.S. citizens have been hashing out the extent and limitations of their freedom of religion for years, from an 1878 battle over polygamy to a 1925 conviction over the teaching of evolution to a set of 1980s opinions that considered holidays displays. Professor Lee Strang, of the University of Toledo law school, said the U.S. Supreme Court has been considering challenges to religious liberty fairly consistently since the early to mid-20th century.
The most recent challenge yielded a decision this week. The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a Missouri church was wrongfully denied the state grant funding it sought to resurface its playground, setting what could be a new course in questions over the flow of state money to religious institutions.
Darrel Ray, a prominent author and atheist who has spoken in Toledo several times, has long been tuned into debates over religious liberty.
“These arguments go way back,” he said.
The more recent manifestations of these arguments, though, have emerged as a particular point of concern for organizations like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The conference on Tuesday concludes its annual “Fortnight for Freedom,” which calls for dioceses across to country to prayer, education, and action on religious freedom. It also notably voted last month to establish a permanent Committee on Religious Liberty.
Bishop Daniel Thomas cast his vote in favor of the permanent committee, according to the Diocese of Toledo. The committee will “strengthen and sustain religious freedom by assisting the U.S. bishops, individually and collectively, to teach about religious freedom to the faithful and the broader public, and to promote and defend religious freedom in law and policy,” according to an organization press release.
Peter Range, director of the office for life and justice at the local diocese, said the committee comes as a response to a shifting religious environment within the United States. Mr. Range specifically pointed to a “movement to separate freedom of worship from freedom of religion” in recent years, including efforts to “narrowly define” this liberty under the Obama administration. (That’s not to say the environment under the current administration is ideal, he clarified.)
Mike Brickner, senior policy director for the ACLU of Ohio, and Professor Strang each said they have seen the U.S. Supreme Court considering religious liberty in new contexts in recent years.
“When people think of some of the classic First Amendment cases, they often think about a creche out on a courthouse lawn or posting the 10 Commandments somewhere in the government,” Mr. Brickner said. “Those cases are definitely still out there, but I would say they have become less frequent. A lot of that is settled case law.”
Mr. Strang, for his part, said he sees the recent cases cropping up on the court docket falling into two major camps.
One pertains to the establishment clause, which prohibits government from establishing or endorsing a religion. The recent Trinity Lutheran vs. Comer, in which the church sought state funding to resurface its playground with recycled tires, considered more forgiving to scraped knees or elbows, falls into this camp.
The 7-2 opinion, in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church, could have far-reaching effects. That includes in Ohio, where a school voucher bill in front of legislators raises similar questions about the financial ties between government and religious institutions.
The other camp that Mr. Strang identifies pertains to the free exercise of religion. A New Mexico-based photographer who refused to shoot a same-sex wedding stands as one example. So, too, does a controversial Department of Health and Human Services mandate that required employers to cover contraceptives under their health plans.
“In response to some of those new and newly applied regulations, religious institutions sued to have their religious liberty protected,” Mr. Strang said.
“That’s an unusual new thing,” he continued, suggesting it could be informed by a recent trend: the application of rules and regulations to religious institutions in ways they had not necessarily seen in the past.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops identifies six perceived threats to religious freedom in a fact sheet circulated in line with its annual “Fortnight for Freedom.” Among the perceived threats are the contraceptive mandate that Mr. Strang noted; immigration policies that affect how faith-based organizations can serve immigrants; and the closures, in other parts of the country, of Catholic foster care and adoption services that refused to place children with same-sex couples.
Mr. Range, of the Diocese of Toledo, said the last point was one of several factors considered in the closure of the local Catholic Charities Adoption Services in recent months. While other identified threats haven’t sparked legal debates in the local diocese specifically, he said, “every church in the area is having to review policies and procedures when it comes to all of these issues that affect religious liberty.”
Mr. Range said he feels it’s important that faith-based views be welcome and included in the public square.
“The Catholic Church should be free to be able to serve people based upon our faith convictions,” he said. “We’re not forcing our beliefs on everybody.”
But — as much of the long-standing conversations surrounding liberty suggest — the line between expressing religious beliefs and pushing them is tough to pin down.
Several of the examples that Mr. Ray, for example, pointed to as examples of religion “trying to creep into every aspect of life” were the same that Mr. Range cast as a protected right to freely practice religion. While Mr. Ray said he has no issue with those who hold religious beliefs, nor does he oppose their First Amendment rights, he said he balks, in some cases, at the ways he sees these debates play out.
“When I hear ‘freedom of religion,’ I hear freedom to push a specific religion on other people,” he said. “That’s what I hear.”
Contact Nicki Gorny at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6133.