Religion

The Coming Test Acts Will Challenge Religious Freedom

A woman’s hand is seen in silhouette during a prayer service at the Concord Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, July 8, 2016. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
And the pressure they bring to bear will be a major test of faith for Christians.

Think of a country where leading politicians question whether members of a long-established religious minority are fit for public office. Or where the head of state attacks the legal protections that allow minority religions to choose their own leaders without state interference. Think of that country’s press, which has deep ideological and financial affinities with the ruling class’s prejudice, whipping up scare stories about that minority’s schools. Maybe you were thinking of Hungary. But all of these are recent examples of American secularism. And if news of recent weeks is any indication, the pace is only going to pick up.

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People,” John Adams wrote, “ It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Well, Americans stopped being a “religious People” quite a long time ago. And they are becoming progressively less attached to organized religion by the day. Consequently, the accepted meaning of the First Amendment has been changing. And the Constitution is becoming inadequate for the defense of religious people and their institutions.

Instead of allowing the flourishing of various religious bodies in a democratic republic, the language of the First Amendment is used to cultivate a special disgust and suspicion of religious people when they act in public or in the civic space. Its “restriction” of religion is now widely interpreted as a license for America’s best and brightest to establish ideas and ideologies so long as those ideas are detached from religion. Even when those ideas trespass on the free exercise of religion.

One strategy for reducing religious liberty is for politicians and the press to generate fake outrage, to treat the normal everyday realities of religiosity as suspicious and controversial.

Senators Mazie Hirono and Kamala Harris recently questioned whether a candidate for a federal judgeship was unfit because of his membership in the Knights of Columbus, a long-established Catholic fraternal organization and charity. The vice president’s wife, Karen Pence, took part-time work at a Christian school, which, like most religious schools, has a code of conduct or statement of faith obliging teachers to uphold the religious ethos of the school. News outlets treated this everyday fact of life as if it were a novel provocation and spent days documenting the “outrage” it generated. Really, they generated it. A column at CNN described the school as “a real-life setting for ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’”

As Notre Dame law professor Rick Garnett wrote,

This story (and others like it) are tactical moves in an effort to “condition the environment” for situations when nominees to federal courts are revealed to have been involved with/sent their children to schools that have policies in place that reflect the abovementioned norms. Second, this story (and others like it) are tactical moves in an effort by opponents of school choice to — having largely lost the battle over the “statist monopoly or parental choice?” debate — cripple voucher and other school-choice programs by pushing legislatures (and enlisting business boycotts and pressure to push legislatures) to exclude from voucher programs those schools that “discriminate.”

The campaign to stigmatize Christian institutions is also seen in the ACLU’s sudden willingness to sue Catholic hospitals and health groups for refusing to provide abortions or transgender services. It will come to Evangelical colleges that have dorm or conduct policies that reflect their convictions about marriage and sex. One can predict with near certainty that in a few years a handful of real stories of neglect or abuse will be used to create a general moral panic about religious homeschoolers.

The cumulative effect of these campaigns of legal and social harassment will be something akin to the English Penal Laws and Test Acts, the very laws that the America’s Founders wanted to escape. Those laws threatened employment and restricted the political action of those dissenters who could not endorse the established opinions of the state. And the pressure they bring to bear will be a major test of faith for Christians themselves.

At America’s founding, it would have been obvious to all statesmen that definitions of marriage and the recognition of marriages trespassed into the domain of religious doctrine, an area they tried hard to avoid. It would have been obvious that the religious practice that schools and seminaries obliged on their students and teachers were not the government’s business. But it is no longer obvious to those who would urge Catholic and Evangelical institutions toward the revised moral practice of Episcopalianism. Their doctrines travel under the name of egalitarianism, and so these advocates feel themselves free to demand universal loyalty to them.

Passing the coming test will require great reserves of moral courage from the administrators of religious institutions. The legal tests will drain and waste away great gobs of money from ordinary believers. And it will test our patience, and even our patriotism. The spirit is willing, but our legal protections are weak.

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