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Monday, June 11, 2012

Freedom from Religion is Real Religious Freedom


The Rhode Island Catholic establishment has a persecution complex. There are a number of recurring themes in the persecution narrative that runs through the controversies surrounding the West Cranston prayer banner, the state's holiday tree and the Woonsocket memorial cross. The premise of this persecution narrative is that there is something fundamentally undemocratic about allowing a minority to overturn the will of the majority in matters of religion. The Catholic majority is a demographic and political reality in Rhode Island, but majority rule does not always equal democracy. The U.S. Constitution provides for freedom OF religion as well as freedom FROM religion. 


The Constitutional provision against the establishment of religion is not only the law of the land, it is fundamentally democratic even where there is an identifiable majority religion. Even if Catholics represented 100% of the population, identifying an area as "Catholic" would imply a commitment to preclude all others from ever settling there. The Establishment Clause prohibits privileging any one religion over all others, thus protecting against religious coercion. The demographic reality of a Catholic majority does not entitle Catholics to impose their religious beliefs on people of other faiths or on non-believers, yet the Catholic persecution narrative equates the refusal to privilege the majority religion with an encroachment on religious freedom.

The West Cranston prayer banner was a clear violation of the Establishment Clause. Public education is compulsory. Schoolchildren are required to frequent the facility. Arguably, the banner represented a sincere effort to be inclusive. Unfortunately, this effort overlooked non-believers as a constituency and no spirit of inclusiveness was evident in the response to challenge. To ask non-believers to look away is no solution. The establishment clause exists to prevent coercion in all its forms. One of the most insidious forms of coercion is the public display of religious conformity. The debate over the banner illustrates this point more effectively than the banner itself. The pledge of allegiance was recited prior to the school board meetings with the words "under God" punctuated by shrill exaggeration. The aim of this exercise was clearly to intimidate. This pugnacious display of piety was flagrant display of intolerance. Christians admire the courage of the biblical Daniel, who was thrown to the lions for defying religious coercion, but vilified a courageous teen who acted on the same principle.

The state holiday tree is fodder for the yearly revival of the "War on Christmas" narrative. The tree is on public land and is publicly maintained. People doing public business cannot avoid it. The practice of referring to a holiday tree as such is not the result of non-believers overreacting. It is a reasonable expression of respect for diverse beliefs. Jeremiah 10:3-4 identifies cutting a tree out of the forest and decking it with gold and silver as a heathen practice, but this practice is also associated with Saturnalia, a rival religious holiday. Calling it a holiday tree still overlooks non-believers for whom the tree represents no holiday. This manufactured controversy demonstrates once more the pervasiveness of the fallacy that state recognition of the majority religion assures religious freedom. Any overreaction is from the religious majority. Non-believers have assented to the polite fiction that a holiday tree is secular.

The most recent such controversy in the area is the Woonsocket cross. The cross is arguably a religious symbol on public land and would seem, therefore, to be a violation of the Establishment Clause. Supporters have asserted that the cross is not a religious symbol, but many petulantly defend this previously obscure memorial with religious devotion. Many in the secular community are hesitant to take on this issue out of respect for the Christians it commemorates and because it is reasonable to regard the cross as a historical vestige of the community's religious heritage. The casual observer may be inclined to view the cross as a historical token of disregard for religious pluralism. Some defenders of the cross have accused the complainant of cowardice for declining to be identified. Whatever view one takes in the matter, it is in the interest of all citizens to protect dissenters from reprisals. The Freedom from Religion Foundation is providing a much needed buffer that will allow for resolution of the matter. The call to root out the dissenter betrays a view of the cross as a symbol of religious conformity.



The local issues mentioned above are echoed at the national level. Religious opposition to anti-bullying initiatives, marriage equality and reproductive freedom is rife with the Christian persecution narrative. This narrative demands that Christians be granted certain exemptions in public policy for the exercise of their religious conscience. Specifically, it demands that religious bullies be allowed to express their righteous indignation in the form of intimidation, that Christian institutions be exempt from recognizing same-sex marriages and that Christian medical professionals be exempt from providing family planning services. 

Citizens and institutions are bound by civil law and professionals are bound by standards set by their peers. The free exercise of conscience does not extend to any act of conscience. Christian Scientists who withhold medical treatment from their children are accountable to civil authority because the state has a compelling interest in the welfare of its most vulnerable citizens. Professionals and institutions that refuse to abide by the standards set by their peers and civil law must make way for providers who can and will.

It is often said that faith and reason are independent domains. It is a natural human tendency, however, to resolve cognitive dissonance through reason, even in matters of faith. But reason and faith are mutually exclusive. Faith does not require justification and reason welcomes challenge. When faith and reason come into conflict, the believer either defers to faith or concedes to reason. An article of faith that is submitted to a test of reason ceases to be an article of faith. Faith is only what the believer accepts without question. 

Reason is the common currency of civilization. It is not the exclusive domain of elite scientists. It is also the domain of philosophers who support subjective generalizations with objective observations. We all observe, predict and generalize. Scientists just control and document more meticulously to insure objectivity. Even theologians appropriate reason to reconcile untenable articles of faith with modern sensibilities. Civil law employs the common currency of reason. Acts of conscience must be accountable to reason, not obscured by faith. Adherents within and across faiths cannot agree on ultimate truth precisely because their mutually-contradictory claims require absolute, unconditional acceptance. Civil law is our only hope for consensus.



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