Category: Religious Liberty

0701whitefieldpreachingHow did religious freedom develop in America? It didn’t happen the way most of us were taught in school—whether in elementary school or law school. In fact, notes legal scholar Richard Garnett, the “standard story” about religious freedom in Early America is profoundly misleading:

In my experience, this “standard story” is familiar to most Americans, whether or not they are historians or constitutional lawyers, though lawyers have probably been more exposed to and influenced by it than most. In this account, our sophisticated and “enlightened” Founding Fathers—with far-seeing Virginians like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the lead—took special care to write and design a “godless” constitution so as to spare our new political community and experiment from the superstition and strife that, they knew all too well, had ravaged and torn Europe in the preceding centuries. In this story, the First Amendment was crafted and constitutionalized so as to entrench a principle—a “wall”—of church-state separation and ensure a secular “public” sphere, with religion protected, but confined within, the “private” realm.

This story is not true. In fact, America’s revolution and constitution were shaped not only by the Enlightenment but also by the Great Awakening, by preachers as well as pamphleteers. And, as John Witte describes in Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment, the Founding-era arguments about religious freedom under law included not just “Enlightenment thinkers” but also “congregational Puritans,” “Free Church Evangelicals,” and “Civic Republicans.” It would not have been difficult to identify a consensus in favor of the liberty of religious conscience and a distinction between religious and political authority and office, but this consensus obtained at a high level of generality and allowed for variation and disagreement with respect to many—indeed most—questions and applications. And, it seems very unlikely that the First Amendment was widely seen as embodying, let alone entrenching, much beyond an aversion to a nationally established church, backed and propped up by legal coercion, of the kind they knew existed elsewhere. Hardly anyone, if anyone, thought that the ratification of the First Amendment meant that something called “religion” was now legally barred from the “public” or that, as a result of that provision, the constitutional validity of laws and policies was contingent on a judicial determination that they did not rest on “religious” beliefs or motives.

Read more . . .

contraceptive-mandateWhen is a religious group not religious enough for the government? When it conflicts with the government’s agenda.

After the launch of Obamacare, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had to determine which employers would get a religious exemptions to the their contraceptive mandate. Instead of relying on factors such as an employer’s religious character, they chose instead to rely on tax law.

This was a rather peculiar decision since, as Carrie Severino notes, “Throughout the long history of taxation in the United States, the tax-writing committees of Congress have generally tried to avoid entangling the Internal Revenue Service in First Amendment religious considerations.” Peculiar, but not accidental. Through the Freedom of Information Act Severino obtained internal government emails that revealed the Obama administration debated how to exclude certain religious organizations from the mandate:
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29persecution_graphic1-1-700x454The rise of Islamic State has led to a renewed focus on the persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria. But as Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan says, “The whole Middle East, without exception, is presently engulfed by a nightmare that seems to have no end and that undermines the very existence of minorities, particularly of Christians, in lands known to be the cradle of our faith and early Christian communities.”

And the problem is not just in the Middle East. In 2013, Christians were harassed either by the government or social groups in 102 of 198 countries, the highest tally for any religious group:
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campus-causes-traumaAround the country, Christian groups on college and universities are being told that if they want to stay on campus they must compromise their mission and principles. As Chris Lawrence of Cru notes, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill denied recognition to a Christian fraternity because it would not agree to open its membership to students of different faiths.

Because the mission of Alpha Iota Omega is to train Christian leaders, lawyers for the fraternity say UNC’s action violated the fraternity’s rights to freedom of association, freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion.

“They are saying that you can’t use religion as the reason for how you select the officers or leaders,” says Jordon Lorence, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, a nonprofit Christian legal group.

Attorney Lorence points out that a vegetarian group on campus holds similar membership requirements, and logically so. “In order to be part of the club, you have to agree that vegetarianism is good and eating meat is bad,” he says. “If they find out that you go home and secretly eat pork chops and Big Macs, they’ll kick you out.”

Such restrictions are not just harming Christian groups, they’re undermining the role of the university, says Grant Jones:
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hist-ff-first-amendment-7195911Ask most Americans why religious liberty is considered the “first freedom” and they’ll likely say it’s because it comes first in the Bill of Rights.

While technically true (it does comes first) that wasn’t the intention of the original framers of the Constitution The original Bill of Rights included two other amendments that were listed ahead of what we now consider the “First Amendment” but that failed to be ratified.

If the placement of “first” on the list was a mere historical accident, should we still consider religious freedom to be the “first freedom”? Matthew J. Franck explains why we should:

Yet friends of religious freedom should not be embarrassed in the least to continue calling it the first freedom, notwithstanding these picayune historical objections. We have it on no less an authority than James Madison, the father of the Bill of Rights, that our duty to the Creator is “precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.” Would Madison also view religious freedom as taking precedence over, or a pride of place among, our other rights? More to the point, should we?

The case for saying “yes” begins with Madison’s characterization of religious freedom as springing from a duty that we owe to God. It is a kind of American dogma that rights are prior to duties—even the Declaration of Independence seems to say so—but in the case of religious freedom the priority is the other way around. Religious believers—and throughout history that has described most human beings—understand themselves to be in a relationship with a divine, transcendent reality, whether understood as a Person or not, who is in some sense responsible for the ground of their very being. Thus they understand themselves as answerable to this divine reality’s ultimate concerns for humankind and for them as individuals. These concerns entirely encompass our moral life, and shape a kind of compulsion in our lives, a realm of unfreedom where the demands of conscience are concerned.

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Blog author: jcouretas
Saturday, November 21, 2015
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Syrian children, from the June 2013 issue of The Word Magazine (Antiochian Orthodox Church)

Syrian children, from the June 2013 issue of The Word Magazine (Antiochian Orthodox Church)

We’re having an intense, often heated, debate about the reception of Syrian refugees in the United States. How do Eastern Christians see it? The Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, an Archdiocese of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, has issued a balanced and unflinchingly critical statement on the crisis. This is a church that traces its history to apostolic times in Syria and other parts of the Middle East. Many North American Antiochians are themselves immigrants or can trace their family history back just a generation or two to the villages and parishes that are being destroyed by the Syrian war. The statement follows in full. Also see my April podcast with Mark Ohanian, director of programs for International Orthodox Christian Charities, who talked about the Syria relief effort, and the massive flow of refugees into neighboring countries such as Lebanon.

Statement from the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America on the Reception of Refugees in the United States in Light of Recent Terrorist Actions around the World

Since the tragic terrorist actions in Paris, Beirut, Mali and elsewhere in the past two weeks, there have been polarized reactions to the reception of refugees, mainly of Syrian nationality, worldwide: an understandable reaction of concern on the one hand, but a sad overreaction of fear on the other. We are all concerned first and foremost for the safety of the citizens of the United States which must be continually addressed and assessed. At the same time, the humanitarian disaster caused by the war in Syria to which the U.S. government has contributed by calling for the removal of the established Syrian leadership – as it did in Egypt, Iraq and Libya – requires a moral response from the people and government of our great country. Misguided U.S. foreign policy helped create the so-called “Arab Spring” which has been a “tornado” that has destroyed Arab countries, leaving power vacuums that have fostered the soaring, vicious activity of terrorist groups including ISIS, al-Nusra, and others in the Middle East and around the world. All of this has resulted in an unprecedented number of deaths of innocent people and lack of basic services like healthcare and sanitation, healthy food and drinking water, safe and dignified housing, and so forth.

We must us not be guided by fear or bigotry, but rather let us work to heal the wounds of the injured, clothing the naked and feeding the poor as our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ has taught us (Matthew 25:35-36).

persecuted-in-iraqThe Obama administration is moving to designate the Islamic State’s persecution of the Yazidi in Iraq an act of “genocide.” For the past few years the Yazidi, a tiny religious minority in the Kurdish region of the country, have been forced to flee the killings, rapes, and enslavement by Islamic State (the terrorist group formerly known as ISIS).

There is no doubt that what is happening to the Yazidi should be considered genocide. But what about the Christians who are suffering under Islamic State? According to some reports, Christian groups might not be included.

Nina Shea, a former commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, explains the significance of the exclusion:

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