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What “Freedom of Worship”? Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 14 March 2014

There’s little doubt that over the past several years there has arisen a hostility to religious liberty in our popular and elite cultures. Once those reliable liberal allies of religious liberty, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, realized that the sacramentals of the sexual revolution were on a collision course with the public practices of religious citizens and their institutions, it was a fait accompli that liberal support for the rights of the latter would quickly dissipate.

For this reason, the recent controversy over the Arizona bill that would have better secured the religious liberty of its citizens under the state’s version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), was portrayed by the national media (including, of all outlets, ESPN) as an attempt by a state government to protect anti-gay bigots from being sued or prosecuted for unjust discrimination. 

Although this depiction, as Hadley Arkes recently noted on this page, is clearly false, it stuck, precisely because elite and popular culture sees no conscience outside concupiscence. This is why for the contemporary secular mind, for example, the Muslim woman who refuses to remove her face covering for her driver’s license photograph is, like Beyonce at the Grammy Awards, merely exercising her “right of wardrobe.”

Consequently, if you cannot reduce your religiosity to some apparent right to self-expression or self-definition independent of any religious content or sacred tradition, then the secular mind has no category in which to place your convictions. And thus they are either not real or just some visceral prejudice from which the state has an obligation to disabuse you. 

Some commentators, however, troubled by this increased hostility to religious freedom, have tried to console themselves with the fact that those advancing hostility claim, at least, to support “freedom of worship.” This means that as long as religious citizens confine their liberty to “worship” – those liturgical practices that occur within church, mosque, or synagogue – then  they will not be bothered.

These commentators, of course, do not welcome this narrowing of religious liberty, for they know that it probably means the inevitable loss of tax-exempt status for religious institutions that fail to acquiesce on certain moral questions, as well as an increase in the number of cases where devout believers will have to choose between violating their consciences or violating the law (or the standards of their profession, e.g., a prolife physician being required to refer a patient to an abortion provider or a health-care facility that offers euthanasia services).


       The desert around Nye: no conscience outside concupiscence

I do not want to be the bearer of bad news, but the most recent religious liberty transgressions – the ones involving bakers, photographers, florists, etc. – are in fact challenges to freedom of worship as well. In none of these cases were services denied because of anything about the religion, race, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation of the prospective customers. Rather, the providers declined services because the prospective customer requested that they cooperate with what the providers believe is an illegitimate presentation, and in some cases a mockery, of a liturgical event that has sacramental significance.

Perhaps the customer, like many Americans, does not see transcendent meaning in the event, since he associates a wedding as admittance to an institutional legal fiction that allows one access to nothing more than a cluster of political and social privileges not available to other friendships. So, given this understanding, it is not surprising that the customer sees the provider’s refusal as a negative judgment on the public legitimacy of his union.

Thus, it’s also easy to see why the customer would be offended by the provider’s refusal. But what the customer fails to see is that his subsequent demand that the government force the provider to rescind his denial is really a demand that the state force the provider not to exercise his freedom of worship, the liberty to participate or not participate in ceremonies that one believes have sacramental significance. Consider this example.

A brothel in Nye County, Nevada, where prostitution is legal, tries to procure the services of a local photographer. It needs her to take a group picture to be used for the business's Christmas card. The photographer, a devout Christian, believes that Christmas is a Holy Day and that prostitution is deeply immoral. Should she have a right to refuse?

As should be well known, the major religions, including Christianity, provide means by which their adherents solemnize certain moments in their lives, each often corresponding to a significant transition from one stage to another. For this reason, many of us mark these transitions with liturgical events such as baptisms, bar mitzvahs, weddings, and burials, and most of us refer to how these are conducted as rites.

Thus, if the freedom of worship does not include the right to abstain from, or participate in, these activities without government coercion, as some commentators, such as Jonathan Merritt, have suggested, then we should be no more confident in the future prospects of “freedom of worship” than we are of “religious liberty.” 

 
 
 
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Comments (11)Add Comment
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written by Myshkin, March 13, 2014
The denial of religious liberty happens everyday in most of the world's countries. The only difference is that we thought it couldn't happen here. It was guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, wasn't it? Well ... it turns out that that is only a matter of legal opinion.

It now happens here. Not on the scale it happens in Iran or North Korea, but give it time ...
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written by Djr, March 14, 2014
This is the most clearheaded and brilliant summary I've read of the issues at stake in our country right now. It may be the best article I've read all year, period. Bravo.
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, March 14, 2014
What those on the other side do not realize is that when you fail to protect constitutional, God-given liberties and acquiesce to tyranny from one side of the political spectrum because it reflects your politics, you run the risk of being tyrannized by your opposition if and when the balance of political power shifts in the other direction.

Has the opposition ever considered what they might think if they were forced to adhere to Christian practices and beliefs just because (and it's never likely to happen) Christians happened to hold all the reins of power and insisted on imposing its will on them?
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written by Athanasius, March 14, 2014
Deacon Ed,

You are correct. There are those among the sexually libertine left that do fear what would happen if traditional Christians do again gain power. That is why they are working to ensure that doesn't happen.

Their tactics are voter fraud (which is why they are vehemently against voter ID laws), abolishing the electoral college, using the IRS and campaign finance laws to stifle any conservative voice, and villifying any media outlet that doesn't kowtow to their marching orders.

Common Core is another tool they are using to control what people are taught. They seek total domination through destruction of the family and the Church.
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written by Augustine Thomas, March 14, 2014
Thank the Catholic left for constantly stabbing the orthodox in the back whenever they attempt to defend the faith.
Speaking of the left, I don't want to be what Jose Bergoglio defines as a "missionary disciple".. I've been taught to avoid near occasions of sin!
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written by Jack,CT, March 14, 2014
Complete and Total Common sense!
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written by kent, March 15, 2014
Your commentary is always fascinating, and of course brilliantly executed.

In the case of florists and photographers being compelled to provide services, we have an instance of individual laws being an extension of the spirit of the age they arise in. Your example about prostitution is telling: the relevant difference between gay marriage and prostitution is that the former has, over the past 15 years or so, come to be seen as acceptable in our culture, but prostitution has not. If prostitution had the cultural imprimatur that gay marriage now has, it would probably be treated similarly. The same cultural sanction is at work in the HHS mandate to offer contraception to employees through insurance. That this conflicts with certain religions' doctrines is simply trumped by the much broader cultural acceptance of it.

The larger story here -- which descriptively explains these individual situations that keep cropping up -- is that in recent years a more radical, decisive, and I would argue permanent, shift in American and Western culture's attitude towards Christianity has come about. The analogy between racism and opposition to gay marriage, if not conceptually apropos, is nevertheless a very acute description of what is going on. As a result of a sea change in public opinion, Christianity is saddled with an intractable public relations problem going forward -- the sense that it promotes a mean, bigoted, ignorant, outdated, and downright immoral view. That is the spin, regardless of whether it's so, and I think it will eventually have the effect of quarantining Christianity in the way racists who resisted the civil rights movement were quarantined -- blacklisted, pushed to the fringe of public life. Given the West's Christian heritage, I'm sure it will take a very long time for this shift to occur, though other issues besides Christianity's view of homosexuality and homosexual behavior may arise that accelerate it. From a historian's perspective, articles such as this one will in time be akin to the writings of various racists who wrote in defense of their position (I know that can seem inflammatory or accusatory, but if you read the comment in light of the rest of what I've said, I think you'll see that I'm simply giving a description of how things are likely to play out rather than drawing a moral equivalency).

In any event, I say all this to indicate how I think the prostitution thought experiment misses the big picture. I know my remarks aren't entirely "at home" here, but I thought it important to bring in the larger narrative; I think it's an explanatory factor that doesn't tend to get enough attention in discussions such as this.
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written by George Marshall, March 16, 2014
Kent makes some good points, but I think it is important to remember something: It is not a shift in attitude towards Christianity. I recently attended a SSM in a Christian church, presided over by a Christian priest, who married two SS Christians to each other and which was witnessed by a congregation made up of almost all Christians. None of those individuals have a problem with Christianity. All of them held a sincere religious belief that God blessed the marriage. Opinion polls show that many Catholics, including many of those who attend church regularly, feel that SS couples should be able to have the freedom to exercise their religious beliefs and marry.

It is interesting that many of the individuals who are worried about the religious freedom of individuals who do not wish to participate in a minor way in SSM, are quite willing to deny those individuals with different religious beliefs the freedom to be married. And where would it stop? If you owned a business that was a venue for children's birthday parties, would you be able to deny the parent's of a 5-year old the ability to pay for a party there because you don't approve that the SS parents are married? We had this argument, as a country, when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. I'm not sure the outcome should be any different now.
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written by Thomas Aquinas, March 22, 2014
kent, appealing to where history is going is just a secular version of claiming to have God on your side. It's not an argument, but a fallacious appeal to the tradition of the future.

George, you may not know this, but in a free country, one given to wide liberties on intellectual pursuits, intelligent, informed, and conscientious people have come to different conclusions about the nature of our sexual powers and the nature of marriage. What you are suggesting is that the state should compel everyone who owns a business to act as if only one view is true, yours. How that is consistent with liberalism and its celebration of religious pluralism I have not the foggiest idea. It seems, actually, a little fascist.

Nobody is denying people the right to marry. The question is over the nature of marriage. By merely asserting the former, you are simply begging the question. In addition, SSM is legal everywhere in the US, even in Utah and Texas, two states in which SSM is not legally recognized. There is no law that prevents the sort of ceremony that you describe your comments. Absence of legal recognition is not the same as "banning" something, for if that were the case you'd have to say that Catholic marriage is banned in the US, since no jurisdiction in this country will honor the strictures of canon law if a Catholic couple were to request the state to do so, as Beckwith has argued here: http://www.thecatholicthing.or...riage.html

Thus, the Civil Rights analogy is completely bogus, since the issue in SSM is the nature of an institution and not about the dignity and intrinsic worth of same-sex attracted individuals.

What you fail to appreciate is that the Civil Rights Act forbids discrimination based on religion as well. Clearly that must mean that the state cannot coerce its citizens to participate in ceremonies that violate their religious beliefs. If the government can't force you to salute the flag if you're a Jehovah's Witness, why should it have the power to force a photographer to cooperate with what the photographer cannot in good conscience engage in?

kent, the prostitution analogy is spot on, since it involves the request for a professional (the photographer) to participate in the celebration of a sacred day in a way that the professional believes is inconsistent with the nature of that day. If liberalism cannot accommodate this, or even the case of the SSM ceremony, then liberalism was never what it claimed to be, or it has morphed into the Paul De Mann fascism that some had claimed that is at its root. In any event, to say that everyone who does not embrace one particular view of human sexuality is a bigot is itself bigoted, for the judgment arises from the sort of lack of imagination that we often attribute to reactionaries.
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written by Murat Turkoglu, April 22, 2014
Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavor and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish.

Baruch Spinoza quote.

What do you say?
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written by Murat Turkoglu, April 22, 2014
Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavor and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish.

Baruch Spinoza quote.

What do you say?

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