Religious Liberty: Some Current Cases
I haven’t finished excited comments on the BPFNA summer conference/peace camp, but I know that some people (especially Roger and D.R.) are waiting for me to return to my posts on religious liberty/liberty of conscience and answer some specific questions they asked. I am hugely disappointed that their’s is the only voices and that no one seems interested in my posts on peace camp, etc., so maybe I’ll shut this blog down soon–but not before keeping my word.
Roger challenged Americans United’s support for the ruling that struck down federal funding for InnerChange Faith Initiative, a program of Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship that helped rehabilitate prisoners in Iowa through evangelical conversion. I agree with this ruling. InnerChange and programs like it do good work. No one, me included, thinks such programs should be ruled out. Of course churches should be involved in prison ministries. The question is whether the government should be funding them and here my answer is the same as with all such federal funding of “faith based initiatives.” No. These are clear violations of the no-establishment clause. It is NOT the business of government to fund evangelistic efforts or to advance or harm any religion in any way. The millions that Prison Fellowship has to repay the government should serve as a warning to other groups. Yes, by all means, minister to prisoners–but be prepared to do so out of your own funds, donated by your believers who support the ministry. Tax money should have nothing to do with it–just as I don’t want my tax money to support a Mormon school or a Jehovah’s Witness program for alcoholics, etc. Also, no prison ministry can give prisoners extra privileges for attending any faith-based rehabilitation program–we do not bribe folks to come to Jesus.
The case that D. R. brought up, of a high school valedictorian having her microphone cut off during her commencement address is harder. I am a huge champion of free speech and free exercise of religion. I don’t think I would have supported this and, at least on the surface, it looks as if AU took the wrong position. (There are no perfect organizations, not even the ones I support.) I would have to read the contents of the young woman’s speech to know for sure. However, although I am likely to support the legal right of a valedictorian to say whatever she wants at commencement, that doesn’t mean I, as a parent, would have been happy if she used her time to evangelize or, especially, to tear down others who do not share her faith. At a public high school commencement there may be people of many different faiths–and this pluralism will surely continue to increase in the future. The commencement’s purpose is to celebrate graduation. If the valedictorian wants to give thanks to Jesus (or Allah or Buddha, etc.) for helping her make her achievement, that is completely appropriate. If she wants to make a brief witness, something like saying, “Neither high school nor college nor the world of work is the central purpose in life. I believe that faith in Jesus Christ is the purpose for which we all were created and, if you wish to ask me more about that, I will gladly tell you.” This is something that will make some folks squirm, but I cannot fault any Christian who would want to use such an auspicious occasion for such a low-key, non-coercive, witness. Now, if her testimony dominated the event, that would be rude, and if she began to put down students who were Muslims, Jews, etc., then parents would rightly be very upset. Schools should have clear guidelines. Private baccalaureates held at churches, synagogues, etc. (as were common in my youth) are, of course, a different matter and can well be completely religious events. The young woman in question’s speech may have been completely legal (and probably was, though I can’t tell for sure without seeing the speech) and still unwise: Think, Christians. If we evangelize in such a way that we get the reputation for rudeness (like people trying to witness in busy checkout lines at supermarkets) or bigotry and intolerance, we drive people AWAY from Christ. How smart is that?
This brings me to the recent case in New Jersey where a girl on a basketball team was intimidated by her coach for not wanting to pray before games and the good “Christian” principal and neighbors tried to make the family move! This is harrassment, pure and simple, and these folks should prosecute to the fullest extent of the law. The proper Christian thing to do would be to rush to these folks aid against the false Christians who would use their positions of power to try to coerce faith–or at least hypocritical conformity.
I’ll end here and take comments and questions. I commend the following defenders of liberty of conscience linked to this blog: Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (formerly called the Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs)–the BJC is supported by many Baptist bodies for the sole purpose of defending both the free exercise and no-establishment clauses of the 1st Amendment. The represent the traditional (non-fundamentalist) Baptist view. Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), while sometimes overzealous on the no-establishment clause and not as strong on free exercise, is an excellent grassroots organization, as is Americans for Religious Liberty–the latter of which has ties to Seventh Day Adventists. Saturday Sabbath keepers have strong reasons to know that “Christian” majorities can discriminate through laws which privilege Sunday, etc. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a secular organization, now, but was founded by religious pacifists during WWI to defend the rights of conscientious objectors to war. Soon, it took as its mandate the defense of all rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. The ACLU is far from perfect, but they have been a very important voice over the years–supplying most of the lawyers, for instance, during the Civil Rights movement that dared to take on the segregation laws or to defend civil rights protesters. As the Bushies try to return us to the age of McCarthy in the name of “fighting terrorism,” I am very proud to be a card-carrying member of the ACLU which is taking the lead in challenging these repressive moves.
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