Acton Institute Powerblog

Religion In America: Accommodation, Not Coercion

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The Supreme Court recently decided (in Greece v. Galloway) that the New York town of Greece had the right to open its town board meetings with prayer, and that this did not violate the rights of anyone, nor did it violate the Constitutional mandate that our government cannot establish a religion. The town, the Court found, did not discriminate against any faith, and there was no coercion to pray.

We know that the Founding Fathers were not all Christians. However, they all wished to see a nation where religious faith was respected and accommodated. The president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom, Alan Sears, writes:

Religious coercion was a great concern to the Founders, and rightly so. But their view of coercion was true coercion, in which people were ordered to act (or refrain from acting) in violation of their conscience. For the Founders, coercion looked more like the current health care dispute in which the government is compelling family businesses to provide insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs regardless of those families’ deeply held religious beliefs. That’s coercion. As to how the Founders viewed legislative prayer, there can be no question; they considered it a desired accommodation of religion, and not coercion.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and praise. His proclamation invoked “Almighty God.” Most of us celebrate Thanksgiving today as a day of friends, family and a recollection of prayerful thanks for the many blessings we have. Yet no one is coerced into doing so, and one would be hard-pressed to find an American who is offended by the simple idea of being thankful. Sears reminds us that the Founding Fathers took the idea of “coercion” seriously, “and did not dumb it down to include being ‘offended.'”

We must realize the difference between the accommodation of people’s faiths, religious beliefs and practices, and the coercion of people to behave or act in a way someone thinks they should. Of course, no one can be forced to pray; you can drag someone into a church building, but you don’t have any control over their thoughts. We should not attempt to force someone to pray, nor should we attempt to force anyone to take part in a religious service or ceremony against their will. We are aghast at such practices in other countries: a woman being forced into an arranged marriage or a man being stoned to death for refusing to convert to a particular faith.

Yet, we now find ourselves in this very position in the United States. The Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission has ordered a baker to make cakes for same-sex couples’ weddings. (There is a bit of irony in that the civil rights commission is ordering someone to do something that violates their civil rights, isn’t there?) at The Federalist:

Jack Phillips isn’t discriminating against gay Coloradans. Gay customers, as far as all the news stories have suggested, are free to shop in the bakery and purchase (at the same price) any of the cakes, cookies, pastries they like without ever being asked by anyone who they love or what the gender equation is in their sex life. Public accommodations, fine. But the fact is that Phillips does not want to participate in a specific ceremony because he holds authentic, well-documented, age-old religious objections to such an event in the same way that a Hasidic Jew or orthodox Muslim may not want to participate in a ceremony that proclaims Jesus our Lord and Savior.

Should someone be forced to violate their religious rights? The Supreme Court says it may be allowed…if there is a clear and compelling interest. It’s hard to imagine that there are not other bakers in Denver (where Jack Phillips is from) who are not willing to bake the biggest, brightest, blingiest cake for any gay couple. But Jack Phillips should not be coerced into doing it; his religious beliefs mandate he cannot take part in this type of arrangement.

Americans are being asked to accommodate same-sex marriage. So be it. Must we be coerced into taking part in the ceremony or the festivities following? If we don’t understand what “accommodation” is, we will certainly have coercion.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.


  • Randy Wanat

    When you’re open to the public, you have obliged yourself to avail them of your services equally. If you want to discriminate on any grounds, make your business a private club. Notice, also, how a secular convocation was received in Washington when a humanist was allowed to offer opening thoughts to a city meeting. The good Christian gentleman huffed off, and proceeded the next week to make a blatantly sectarian and spiteful convocation at the next meeting. Why is being treated with equality seen as victimization by the members of the overwhelming majority? Are different ideas that frightening?

    • I don’t know what particular case you’re referring to, but a “good Christian gentleman” should have stayed put. Being treated with equality is NOT frightening. What is frightening is the loss of one’s right to practice one’s faith openly and freely. Should public schools offer food options for Muslims? Of course. Can a private lawyer refuse to take on a client who belongs to the KKK? The public square is just that: public. It should be a place of accommodation for ALL, not a select few.

      • Randy Wanat



        And, private is private. A public business is not a private club, and the rules and laws regarding them are different. Allowing a new generation of Jim Crow under the guise of religious freedom is not what free exercise of religion means. A business has no religious beliefs, and is not able to discriminate based on any religious grounds if it’s open to the public. They must accommodate all. Sad that there are some who would bring us back to the shameful institutionalized legal bigotry of our past.

        • Perhaps you will find this helpful: Freedom in an Age of Secularism

          • Randy Wanat

            He wrings his hands about business owners having to do business equally with the public when they have opened their business to the public. If someone wants to discriminate on religious grounds, they need to form a religious club. It is folly to lament that people are expected to follow the laws of commerce when they open a for-profit business. Should a grocery store have the right to deny service to blacks if it’s run by fundamentalist Mormons, even though their business is open to the public? I can harbor no sympathy for people who try to justify their bad behavior and unwillingness to follow the rules when they don’t favor themselves. Expecting double standards is NEVER appropriate nor deserving of sympathy.

          • Should a restaurant owned by Muslims be expected to serve pork and alcohol if the public demands it? Should a bookstore that specializes in Wiccan materials be made to offer Bibles and Qurans? We cannot discriminate against people for their gender, their race or other traits that they are born with. We can decide not to deal with people’s CHOICES. A person may be born homosexual (and the jury is still out on that), but they CHOOSE to participate in homosexual activity. One is a trait, one is a choice.