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Hypocrisy Reigns Supreme

13 Religious Groups Command "About Face" On Religious Freedom

June 15, 1999

By Bill Schultz

 

In the insanity that sometimes rules debates about the separation of church and state, I've long noted the "teeter-totter" effect of this issue. There are two parts to the religious portion of the First Amendment.[1] One, referred to as the "establishment clause," commands that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The other, referred to as the "free exercise clause," continues on from that point and commands that Congress shall make no law "prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Those two clauses were intended by our founding fathers to do as Thomas Jefferson described, to erect a "wall of separation between church and state."[2] Those restrictions on Congress have been made applicable to all levels of government through the Fourteenth Amendment.[3]

The difficulty is that modern US Supreme Court jurisprudence frequently finds those two clauses to be in conflict with each other. In some cases, the Supreme Court finds it cannot do complete justice to the "free exercise clause" without doing violence to the "establishment clause," or vice versa. I'm probably one of the few freethinkers who believes that the current state of the law as defined by our Supreme Court is "just about right," as far as balancing those two conflicting concepts can reasonably be done. The fact that both freethinkers and religionists feel their rights are being violated by the current state of the law is probably a good indication that a relatively fair balance exists between the interpretations of those two clauses.

Nonetheless, the so-called Radical Religious Right has attempted to restore recognition of an older balance point that they perceive as more favorable to their own "religious liberties." They have attempted to increase the amount of "free exercise" at the expense of some "establishment" (or at least, special recognition) of religion. They have pursued this goal in the name of "religious freedom," calling their legislative efforts in this regard by various high sounding names. One example is the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), 107 Stat. 1488, 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et seq.,"[4] a law that was held to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Boerne v. Flores, (95-2074)[5] (the issue in this case was whether religiously neutral zoning laws could be enforced against a church building). Freethinkers are lucky in that many theists also recognize the "wall of separation" to be in their own best interests. Organizations run by theists, such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State,[6] were very active in opposing legislation like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the Congress and in the courts.

The older balance point,[7] sought by RFRA supporters, would have required a "compelling interest" by the government before it could enforce an otherwise neutral law of general applicability against any religious practice. Furthermore, the government could only use the "least restrictive means" for enforcing its "compelling interest" with an otherwise religiously neutral law. In essence, this test would have required all governments to allow virtually any activity called a "religious practice" so long as the government could not justify some sort of "compelling interest" why the government must interfere with that "religious practice." Many who opposed this expansion of the concept of "free exercise" noted that passing such a law amounted to the virtual "establishment" of a very special religious privilege, thereby offending the "establishment clause" of the First amendment. On the other hand, a failure for this "establishment" of a religious privilege would supposedly offend the "free exercise clause" of the First Amendment (see what I said about the teeter-totter, above?).

So far, the Supreme Court has refused to allow the "establishment" of this special religious privilege. So, this is pretty much where things stand today between the various groups arguing for more favorable treatment for their particular point of view. The "teeter-totter" sits right where it was put by the Supreme Court decision in Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990),[8] with the government allowed to enforce otherwise neutral laws of general applicability against religious organizations and interests. This is, I would argue, the "correct" place for the "teeter-totter" to sit.

However, in the middle of pressing for an amendment to the Constitution to overrule the Supreme Court in Boerne, above, and while trying to pass H.R. 1691 (or an equivalent), the Religious Liberty Protection Act of 1999 ("RLPA"),[9] the Radical Religious Right has suddenly found itself on the exact opposite side of this whole issue. It seems that religious liberty is OK so long as it is an acceptable form of the Christian religion. Or perhaps even some "related" religion (like Judaism or Islam, both of which claim to worship the God of Abraham, along with the Christians). But if it is an "unrecognized" "fringe religion," the Radical Religious Right wants the government to prohibit it. Now, isn't that the soul of hypocrisy?

James A. Haught recently wrote about Rep. Barr's attempt to outlaw the practice of the Wiccan religion on military bases.[10] It seems that this ardent Christian is upset that the supposedly religiously neutral Pentagon is supporting a religion that Rep. Barr finds to be offensive. Once again one of our political leaders can't seem to understand that the concept of religious pluralism requires equal treatment of all religious groups no matter how silly each of us might think any particular group or its practices might be.

But this controversy has expanded far beyond one Congressman who can't seem to understand the Constitution. Now, it seems that most of the key players from the Radical Religious Right have joined forces to attempt to force the Pentagon to ban the Wiccan religion. Thirteen different right-wing religious groups have called for a boycott of the US Army.[11] It seems these groups can't stand the thought that volunteers in the US Army might actually engage in the "free exercise" of some religion the Christians don't like.

 

"Until the Army withdraws all official support and approval from witchcraft, no Christian should enlist or re-enlist in the Army, and Christian parents should not allow their children to join the Army," said Paul M. Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Association, one of the organizations calling for the boycott. "An Army that sponsors satanic rituals is unworthy of representing the United States of America."[12]

It seems that the Wiccan religion isn't the only issue. Apparently the Army has officially recognized the Church of Satan[13] by including it in its Chaplain's Handbook as one of the religions that may be authorized to utilize base facilities. I have to wonder just where these groups would draw the line if they knew all of the different religious groups the US Army officially recognizes in this way. Would they exclude Buddhists? How about Mormons? Would they even object to Jews practicing their religion on an Army base?

Its pretty much a given that Christians should feel Satan to be about the most polar opposite of an enemy they could have. But the United States of America is supposed to be a land of religious freedom, right? So, what is the government of the US supposed to do with members of two religious groups that are declared "enemies" of each other? I would think the government should teach religious tolerance of each other, along with respect for the First Amendment of our Constitution. That would seem to be exactly what's called for here. But that is not what these groups are willing to accept.

 

"The official approval of Satanism and witchcraft by the Army is a direct assault on the Christian faith that generations of American soldiers have fought and died for," Weyrich said.[14]

Excuse me, but didn't those "generations of American soldiers" fight and die to preserve the United States of America and the Constitution that defines exactly what "the United States of America" actually means? I took a military oath when I joined the US Navy, and I don't recall swearing to defend the Christian faith! As one of those "American soldiers" who has fought for this country, I resent those like Weyrich who distort what the real issues have been when we took to the battlefield.

And doesn't it strike you as the height of hypocrisy for the Radical Religious Right, who is still involved in a fight to expand their own religious freedoms at the expense of secular government, to call for the outlawing of somebody else's religious practices? That's surely the way I see this fight.

Personally, I can't think of a better demonstration of how silly the whole Radical Religious Right actually is. They don't understand the very freedoms they are supposedly seeking. Each incident of this type only reinforces my view of how wise it was for our founding fathers to erect a "wall of separation between church and state."[15] Would you want those who seek only their personal supremacy in charge of making and interpreting our laws? I surely would not!

There is only one ultimate answer, and that is we must maintain the "wall of separation between church and state."[16] To do that, we must support organizations that pursue that goal. Organizations like Americans United for Separation of Church and State[17] are crucial for any of us who value our own freedom to have our own views about religion. This is true even if we feel that all religions, regardless of their beliefs, are just plain silly. After all, its only a short step from oppressing the adherents of one allegedly offensive belief system to oppressing all who don't adhere to the majority point of view.[18] And that is exactly what we freethinkers can't allow.

Notes

[1] For the text of the First Amendment, please see: <URL:http://caselaw.findlaw.com/data/Constitution/amendments.html#t2> and pay particular attention to the beginning clauses, as they are quoted below.

[2] Please see <URL:http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/thomas_jefferson/letter_to_baptists.html> for the text of Thomas Jefferson's famous letter to the Danbury Baptists (written in 1802), which contains the quoted phrase.

[3] For the text of the Fourteenth Amendment, please see: <URL:http://caselaw.findlaw.com/data/Constitution/amendments.html#t6> and note this clause: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." That language means, among other things, that the Bill of Rights applies to all state laws.

[4] See <http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/42/ch21B.html#PC21B> for the complete text of this law.

[5] See <URL:http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/95-2074.ZS.html> for the text of all opinions and dissents in this case, plus an introductory Syllabus (which is not in any way legally binding, mind you).

[6] See <URL:http://www.au.org/> for the internet Home Page of this organization.

[7] See note 4, above.

[8] See <http://caselaw.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=case&court=US&vol=494&invol=872> for the full text of that Supreme Court decision.

[9] Congressional action on most legislation can be tracked online through <URL:http://thomas.loc.gov/>. In particular, you can read a PDF copy of the new HR 1691 at <URL:http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=106_cong_bills&docid=f:h1691ih.txt.pdf>. It doesn't take a genius to note the strong resemblance to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Is this what we pay our Congress to do? Re-pass laws that the Supreme Court has already invalidated? It does make one wonder.

[10] See <http://www.infidels.org/secular_web/feature/1999/wicca.html> for the full text of that story.

[11] See <http://www.statesman.com/news/2state/1999/06/10wiccaboycott.html> for the text of the story, by Kim Sue Lia Perkes of the Austin American-Statesman newspaper.

[12] Ibid.

[13] See <http://www.churchofsatan.com/> for the Church of Satan home page.

[14] See note 11, above.

[15] See note 2, above.

[16] Ibid.

[17] See note 6, above.

[18] The main reason why organizations like the Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan are still active in the United States is the fact we agreed, in our Constitution, to tolerate abhorrent minorities as part of the price we pay for our own freedoms. The same concept obviously applies to religious groups.

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