Category Archives: Human Rights

Trinity Lutheran Church vs Comer and the free exercise of religion

I have a confession to make. Reading the US Supreme Court’s ruling on Trinity Lutheran Church vs Comer, I am more persuaded by the majority decision written by Chief Justice Roberts than by Justice Sotomayor’s dissent. In this I differ from many secular campaign groups who deplore the ruling and are worried about what it might lead to.

In brief, Missouri runs a program using old tyres to improve children’s playgrounds. Trinity Lutheran Church asked to benefit from this. Their bid was rejected because it came from a church, in line with Missouri’s rule that no taxpayers’ money can go to a church. The Supreme Court ruled 7–2 that rejecting the bid simply because it came from a church violated the constitutional ban on laws “… prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. Sotomayor’s dissent, in contrast, focused on the other half of that clause, banning laws “respecting an establishment of religion”.

The two phrases together are commonly interpreted as erecting Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between churches and the government, preventing taxpayers money from going to churches and preventing the government from taxing churches.

But I think that another metaphor sums up religious freedom better, that of government blindness to religion. The government must be blind to religion, it cannot act with religious or anti-religious motive, it cannot favour religion, and it cannot disfavour religion.

Indeed, Jefferson also insisted (added emphasis):

“… that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities”.

The Missouri program was open to bids from private schools and private day-care centers; the program had no religious intent, it was about recycling tyres and improving playgrounds. The fact that in one case the benefit would go to a day-care center run by a church is incidental. If that church were disqualified merely for being religious then their “civil capacities” would thereby have been “diminished”.

If a generally open program is off-limits to religious groups, but only to religious groups, then that seems a wrongful limitation of free exercise. I side with the majority ruling. The state of Missouri should have simply been blind to the religious nature of that applicant.

Equally, by this doctrine, however, religious institutions should not be exempted from taxation just because they are religious. They should be treated as any other private body.

Justice Sotomayor dissented from the ruling, expressing concern that the granting of money to a church would violate the “establishment of religion” clause, and citing a vast number of precedents where the funding of churches had been prohibited.

Yes, the grant would benefit a church, but that was not the intent of the program, and that is very different from establishing a program whose intent is to benefit a church (as in most of Sotomayor’s precedents).

The Establishment Clause is often expounded as the Lemon Test (which Sotomayor did not address directly in her dissent). The three-pronged test requires that: (1) a statute or government action must have a secular purpose (clearly the Missouri program did); (2) the principal or primary effect of the statute must not advance nor inhibit religion (any benefit to a church from the Missouri playground program was incidental, not a primary effect); and (3) the statute must not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion.

The third is the only one that the Missouri program could violate, but does a religion-blind policy where a religious institution could participate on equal terms with other private institutions really amount to “excessive entanglement”? Isn’t it just neutrality?

Sotomayor makes issue of the fact that Trinity Lutheran had not promised that it would not use the grant money for proselytising, instead of improving the playground, but presumably it would have done so if asked. Even as staunchly secular as I am, I could not find myself persuaded by Sotomayor’s arguments.

The judgement itself is fairly narrowly written, explicitly saying that it is not about taxpayers’ money going to activity that is itself religious, though the worry is that it could set a precedent that leads in that direction.

Could this lead to the courts ruling that the taxpayer must fund private religious schools on equal terms with state-funded public schools? Well, if a state instituted an open program where they would fund any school ran by anyone without any limitation on how the school operated or what was taught, then likely, yes, because of “free exercise”, that would have to include religious schools.

But surely no state government would run such a program; it would always take an interest in the quality of education and the curriculum it was paying for. The requirements for that would have to be secular (any religious component in the specifications would violate all three prongs of the Lemon Test), and that would prevent the state from paying for religious instruction.

Yes it is a worry what a highly religious and partisan court might do in the future, but in Trinity Lutheran I feel they made the right ruling that is most in line with the secular principles of religious freedom and religious equality.

I hope I’m not letting the side down too badly!

Updates: The Secular Coalition for America have said that:

“By deciding that churches are eligible for public grants, the court has empowered government employees and state lawmakers to decide which religious institutions ought to receive taxpayer money. This is precisely the entanglement of religion and government that the wall of separation between church and state is intended to safeguard against.”

That’s not really true. The government employees and state lawmakers could use only secular criteria in deciding which (religious) institutions receive taxpayer money, so there is little “entanglement”.

American Atheists say:

“Without the protection of these no-aid clauses, taxpayers are now being forced to directly subsidize religious denominations they do not support.”

But only to the extent that the program already supports other private groups. As the ruling points out, religious denominations already get the benefit of taxpayer-funded roads, police, fire brigades, et cetera.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation argue that:

“It has been a bright line rule since America’s founding that the government will not fund religion or the free exercise of religion. Today, the Supreme Court destroyed that rule …”

Well no, the ruling doesn’t mean that the government can fund religion, it means that the government can fund secular activity done by religious people.

This is strange, I would normally agree entirely with the above organisations. Am I wrong here?

Tim Farron’s resignation does not reveal secular intolerance

British Christians have been writing to the newspapers complaining that the resignation of Tim Farron as leader of the Liberal Democrats shows that liberal secularism has revealed itself to be intolerant. “We are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society”, said Farron himself. The resignation “should make us wary of those who pretend to be tolerant and liberal” (Telegraph), “… is evidence of wider intolerance in British society” (Christian Institute) and “… symbolises the decay of liberalism” (New Statesman), opine others.

When Christians are unhappy it is usually because they are waking up to the fact that society is increasingly unwilling to grant them the special privileges to which they are accustomed, and to which they think they are entitled. The special privilege being asked for here is not that they be allowed to advance their beliefs in the public arena. That is accepted and not under threat by any secularist or Western atheist, however much Christians try to pretend otherwise. Rather, the special privilege being asked for is to advance such views and to have them exempted from critical scrutiny.

The suggestion that Christians can no longer hold high office in Britain is bizarre given that all recent Prime Ministers have been openly and vocally Christian. It is even more bizarre in a nation where families are routinely discriminated against by taxpayer-funded schools merely because they don’t go to church, where school pupils are legally required to worship the Christian god (!), and where Church of England bishops are given automatic places in the House of Lords.

Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat leader

I’ll also say this about Tim Farron. As an evangelical Christian he recognised that his religious views are minority ones within the UK, and thus quite genuinely did not want to impose them on others or on society at large. This contrasts with Theresa May who sees her Christianity as mainstream and as entitled to establishment privilege (despite the fact that only 4 per cent now attend church on a typical Sunday). Thus Theresa May, not Tim Farron, is the one trying to increase the amount of religious discrimination in state schools.

“No religious test” for public office is of course at the heart of liberal and secular principles. But “no religious test” is a restriction on the government; it is not a restriction on the people. In a democracy people must be allowed to consider someone’s opinions and views in deciding who to vote for. Indeed, isn’t that the whole point?

Christians want politicians to be open and vocal about their religious views, and are quite happy if that makes people more likely to vote for them, but where it makes people less likely to vote for someone they want to cry “Intolerance!”.

Tim Farron was leader of a party that promoted full equality for gay people. Yet it seems his private views are that a gay lifestyle is sinful and against Biblical teachings. People, understandably, questioned him about that discrepancy.

That is not “intolerant”, it is simply asking for consistency. If the leader of the Conservative Party, publicly promoting a free-market economy, revealed that in private they were actually a Marxist, there would be just as many questions!

It was Tim Farron himself who considered that his public role, leading a “progressive, liberal party in 2017”, had become incompatible with what he saw as “living as a committed Christian” and “hold[ing] faithfully to the Bible’s teaching”. That is a contradiction he really should have sorted out for himself before running for public office. People are entitled to hold compartmentalised and inconsistent views; but voters are entitled to take note.

To claim that tolerance demands that the media and public just ignore such inconsistencies is to ask that religious beliefs be granted a very special status where they be exempt from scrutiny, a status where voters may react favourably to religious views but may not react unfavourably. There is nothing illiberal in rejecting that request.

Can we please distinguish between speech and actions?

The distinction between speech and action matters. Shouting fire in a crowded theatre endangers people’s safety and so is not just speech but also an “action” that can rightfully be outlawed. In contrast, showing contempt by burning the US flag or a copy of the Quran is “speech” and so should not be outlawed. The act of burning an item of your own property is lawful, and the added contemptuous attitude amounts to speech. This is highlighted by the fact that the method of disposal of old flags recommended by the US military is … burning them, though respectfully. Likewise some Islamic authorities recommend burning as the method of disposal of old copies of the Quran that are no longer fit for reading.

Those in favour of free speech generally hold that any speech that stops short of incitement to violence, or otherwise putting people in direct physical danger, should be lawful and accepted. Those against free speech think otherwise. But they don’t want to admit to being against free speech; few people do. So they label those in favour of free speech as “free speech absolutists”, and begin their arguments with: “I am fully in favour of free speech, but …”. From there they muddy the water by trying to negate the distinction between speech and action. Continue reading

Lamenting the reburial of ancient bones

In 2015 ISIS captured the ancient city of Palmyra and proceeded to destroy ancient ruins that they regarded as pagan or polytheistic. The World Heritage Site monuments were typically 2000 years old. Did ISIS have a right to destroy them? Most of us would say no, and would lament the loss of a heritage that cannot be replaced.

In saying that we are being culture-ist. That is, we are placing the values of our culture above those of ISIS, who, after all, would regard their acts as virtuous and as mandated by the highest authority, namely their religion. I readily plead guilty to be unapologetically culturist.

This comparison might be considered inappropriate, but in Nature this week I read about a 12,600-yr-old skeleton, the “Anzick Child”, that had been passed to Native American groups for reburial. The article lists 12 other skeletons, all older than 8000 yrs, that have either been reburied or might be. Reburial here effectively means their permanent loss, since they would decay relatively quickly under normal burial conditions.

As a scientist I am saddened by the loss of irreplaceable material that could tell us much about the past history of humans. I would regard such remains as part of the common heritage of us all and am unhappy about one group destroying them in the same way that I am unhappy about a group taking it upon itself to destroy Palmyra or the Bamiyan Buddha statues. This is obviously very culturist of me, but then I’ve already pleaded guilty. Continue reading

What the Muslim Council of Britain unfortunately did not say about Louis Smith

Statement (unfortunately not) by the Muslim Council of Britain regarding the Louis Smith video and the resulting ban by British Gymnastics. (Link to BBC account)

As Muslims we greatly appreciate the freedom to practice and voice our religion in a country that has not traditionally been Islamic. Such freedoms can only exist in a country where people can dissent from, and indeed criticise, other people’s beliefs, political views and religions. We recognise that, from Swift’s A Modest Proposal to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Britain has a long tradition of satire and mockery that examines and holds to account both political and religious beliefs.

We maintain that truth has nothing to fear from examination, and that only falsehood and error seek the protection of censorship. Holding our religion to be the highest truth, we declare that it is far beyond being damaged by satire or mockery. We declare our truths to the world, openly inviting people to examine them for error. Critics please speak up, since we are confident that we can more than meet any challenge. If you want to mock us, go ahead! Continue reading

The Southern Poverty Law Center brands Maajid Nawaz an “extremist”

So the Southern Poverty Law Center have now declared that everyone must submit to Islamic rules about blasphemy, and that if one does not then one is an “anti-Muslim extremist”. How have we come to this? How can it be that those who think that participation in a religion should be a free choice, and that we should not be obliged to submit to the rules and diktats of someone else’s religion, are now regarded as “extremists”?

It used to be the case that “free speech” included the right to speak in ways that upset people. The point was often made that speech that upsets no-one does not need protection; it is only speech that someone else does not want you to say that needs support from the fundamental principle that in a free society we need to be able to speak our mind and criticize others.

But no, “free speech” now has clear limits. If someone else is at all upset by anything you say, then you are making them “feel unsafe”, and making them feel unsafe is an act of violence. And if you want to pursue your speech down that road, then you are an extremist, the sort of person whom the Southern Poverty Law Center was set up to oppose. Continue reading

Why are we allowing student unions to veto speech?

The principle of free expression is increasingly under threat across the Western world. Speech that might upset or annoy someone is being categorised as “hate speech” and thus placed beyond the pale in acceptable society. According to a recent Pew poll, 38% of British people now agree that the government should be able to prevent people saying things that are offensive to minority groups. Worryingly, even fewer support free speech in the rest of Europe.

Pew Poll on Free Speech

And of course it would be entirely up to those minority groups to tell us what they deem offensive, which would allow them a veto over all public discourse. Nor are such concerns merely theoretical. Currently we have a preacher being prosecuted for describing Islam as “Satanic”. Whatever happened to the very bedrock of Western liberties, Voltaire’s: “I disagree with everything you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it”? Continue reading