International Law & Court Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Religious liberty in Russia … and the US

World War II poster by Norman Rockwell

At the end of his Social Contract, Rousseau argues for a civil religion that requires all citizens to be uber-tolerant of religions not their own: “Anyone who ventures to say: ‘Outside the Church is no salvation’ should be driven from the state,” he wrote.

That’s the position the Russian Supreme Court took Thursday in banning the Jehovah’s Witnesses and seizing their property under the Russian Federation’s 2006 anti-extremism law. The law prohibits the dissemination of “propaganda” that promotes religious “supremacy.”

Along with being pacifists, opposing blood transfusions, and generally abstaining from civic life, the Witnesses do indeed promote the idea that theirs is the only true religion. As their Russian spokesman told NPR, “This is the nature of any religion, otherwise, why are you following a false religion?”

But in Putin’s Russia, religious liberty must bow before the Rousseauian imperative of state solidarity.

Most Americans don’t see things that way. We may disapprove of those who go around proclaiming that Heaven is exclusively reserved for members of their church. We don’t consider them enemies of the state.

But that doesn’t mean we’ve got religious freedom all sorted out in the U.S. of A. To the contrary, we find ourselves in a particularly unsettled time, free-exercise-wise.

For the past several years, we’ve been consumed with debates over the extent to which religious claims should be allowed to supersede anti-discrimination laws and healthcare mandates. On both sides, partisans have dug in, seeing threats to civilization in even the smallest calls for compromise.

Last year, in the Supreme Court, it was Zubik v. Burwell — the so-called “Little Sisters” case, whereby some religious non-profits insisted that it would violate their religious freedom simply to file for an exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that they provide free contraceptive coverage to their female employees. Because that would “trigger” the provision of such coverage by another party.

This year, it’s Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, which concerns the exclusion of a religious preschool from a Missouri program giving grants to non-profits to resurface their playground with recycled tires. Missouri’s Constitution prohibits provision of public funds “in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.”

The question before the Supreme Court is whether the prohibition, at least in the case of that exclusion, violates the U.S. Constitution.

In an amicus brief, the American Jewish Committee, which supported the government’s position in Zubik, took Trinity Lutheran’s side, arguing reasonably that where a “program or activity at issue is inherently secular in nature and would be perceived by the public as such” religious organizations should be entitled to apply for public funds “on the same terms as secular organizations.”

As it happens, Missouri’s newly elected Republican governor recently rescinded the exclusion, thereby conceivably rendering the question moot. But just before oral argument Wednesday, both sides urged the justices to go ahead and decide the case on the merits — something the justices seemed inclined to do, and in favor of Trinity Lutheran at that.

What has made this case so neuralgic for strict separationists and so exciting for accommodationists is that, as Emma Green makes clear over at the Atlantic, the facts of the case are so religiously innocuous. “On its surface,” writes Green, “Trinity Lutheran seems like it’s just about keeping kids’ knees from getting scraped.”

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the jurisprudence of the religion clauses was sufficiently settled that the Court could be depended on to render a decision that would do no more than move the boundary between the constitutional guarantees of free exercise and establishment a little one way or another.

Nowadays — and with a new accommodationist justice on the Court — all bets are off. In the name of religious freedom, religious organizations could well be made eligible for all sorts of public funding.

To be sure, nothing comparable to Russia’s liquidation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is in the offing. But the stakes are big enough.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

38 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • These issues will be settled by the courts. Anitheists have had great success shutting down school/staff sponsored public prayers and instructional bible studies classes. In these instances the students can form peer prayer groups or pray individually. Athletes can pray together before and after games. The obvious difference is that the school doesn’t participate or lead. Schools do provide classroom space for student organizations to meet. Favoritism? Maybe not since they likely do the same for all school clubs, even those of different religions. Courts and pressure groups do a good job of eliminating non-secular Christmas and Easter plays and displays. Some suggest allowing the displays if all religions represented in the school get their own plays and displays. What about school cafeteria serving kosher and hallel foods? Is that an OK concession? I read that some high schools are providing prayer rooms for all students. Will they then install the foot baths needed by Muslims to clean their feet prior to praying? Not doing so in schools with significant Muslims has caused health and safety issues as sinks are used and water hazards appear on the floor. Will they accommodate Muslim students’ class schedules so they can be excused to pray at the designated times? In schools with significant numbers of non-Christians, will the schools take time off so those students can participate in the holidays?

    How much accommodation is required to satisfy these various religious groups? As stated in previous posts we have always been a Christian majority country and, as such, catered to the Christians. Seldom did other groups complain. So our country at the local, state and federal levels have been lax and out of compliance with the Constitution. Over the last 30 years groups are putting increasing pressure to correct these oversights and, for the most part, the courts have agreed. This is what the snowflake conservative Christians call a war or, at minimum, persecution.

  • Allow me to say this, if I must be saddled with a French philosopher, I much prefer Blaise Pascal, who was only secondarily a philosopher, to Jean Jacque Rousseau, and his naïve construct; the Noble Savage.

  • “This is the nature of any religion, otherwise, why are you following a false religion?”
    Unfortunately, this narrow, arrogant, and dangerous point of view is widespread in the American Judaeo/Christian majority. As for the Russians, their Orthodox Church, with which this current government has a cozy relationship, is most likely as guilty as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but hay, that’s power politics.

  • “Anyone who ventures to say: ‘Outside the Church is no salvation’ should be driven from the state,” he wrote.” So is the author suggesting the JWs should be driven from the state, along with the Rousseau?: “Along with being pacifists, opposing blood transfusions, and generally abstaining from civic life, the Witnesses do indeed promote the idea that theirs is the only true religion”

  • It is getting interesting in Georgia. That includes Cobb County, a suburb of Atlanta, where a school recently promised to stop allowing students to say “namaste” or using crystals (which they didn’t do anyway) while practicing yoga type exercises. Parents complained over religious practices in school.

    Now, a Satanic group is working to establish some clubs at schools in the Greater Atlanta area, including one in Cobb County.

    Here is what is hard for me to reconcile. I found the brouhaha over yoga laughable. But, I do not want Satanic clubs in schools. I am okay with other religious based clubs – Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim. But I have a huge reaction to the idea of Satanic clubs. I rationalize this by saying to myself that the Satanic religion deliberately uses symbols Christians would find horrible in order to taunt and deride Christianity, rather than having something they can present as a positive image of what they do believe. But that is rationalizing a very big emotional response to the “threat” I perceive from those who “worship” in the name of what I was taught is the symbol of the greatest evil.

    Well, I am old. While I generally fall into what some call “liberal” political positions, this one is too much for me. Maybe younger people don’t have the reaction I have and will see accommodation of this new religion as just fine. And, maybe I will get over it or just keep my mouth shut. I have some thinking and praying to do.

  • Another Christian who wants his cake and to eat it too. Don’t like Satanism? Get over it. Christianity has some good aspects but overall is pretty horrible too.

  • If I could, I’d be keenly interested in observing/documenting/recording the behaviors of students, staff, parents, and outsiders: how they treat each other; who initiates any abuse; what forms it takes (verbal, physical, property damage, shunning, etc.); who, if anybody, steps in to stop it; whether it becomes established, or dissipates, or escalates; whether it becomes a teaching lesson for anyone; and whether and how it affects the content and tenor of parent-teacher conferences, community meetings, religious services, etc.

  • And you believe the same thing about your religion or at least several key beliefs Real Christians must have. You have made this clear time and again.

  • They’re not Satanists. They use this “religion” to make a point. All of the club’s activities are strictly secular.

  • You know, every time you see a Star of David, or a Muslim crescent, or possibly even a many armed Hindu god, you see people who think that the Christian story is bunk. The Jews say Jesus was not the son of god, that god never had a son. The Muslims say he was simply a prophet, with it being the worst sort of blasphemy to assert otherwise, and the Hindus consider him one god among many, not one among three.

    All of those faiths stand in stark opposition to EVERYTHING Christianity stands for, at least as far goes as the nature of god and his message to the world. And they each of them have exactly as much proof as all of the others that theirs is the correct, the true, the accurate nature of god and his message to the world. And yet, they are each of them accorded the same respect, the same freedom of religion.

    Why is the Satanist church– entirely appropriate, because Satan is often named by Christians to be the lord and the prince of this world– any different than the Jews, the Muslims, and the Hindus. Christians acknowledge the existence of Satan, yet differ among themselves about the attributes of their very own god– the Mormon god, the JW God, and the general Christian god being good examples. Of course, there is the nature of the Trinitarian god itself, as evidenced by a recent long discussion here at RNS on the nature of the Trinity and whether Mormons, or other Christians, for that matter, worship Jesus or god or the trinity.

    It’s a puzzlement.

  • it is a living choice Ben. Becoming a Christian is the beginning of being alive and not dead.

  • So it’s exactly like coming out of the closet and living your life openly and freely as a gay man or woman.

    we’re in agreement!

  • I think the Satanist groups do not really worship anyone or anything, they only make a political point, much like the religion of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — a joke of sorts. ATF, do you realize that Yahweh is like a raging dysfunctional parent who brings death, floods, plagues, drought, exile, etc. because he is ‘angry’? The Papal talk about ‘mercy’ continues this misconception about God. Could Satan be any worse than this sort of a god? And in Job, Yahweh allows Satan to torment Job. So Yahweh is in cahoots with Satan. For the Yazidis, Satan is the strong god who is placated with offerings (like Yahweh),
    and the good god is a remote primary cause of creation, if I remember
    correctly. I don’t believe today’s Satan worshipers are worth worrying about. Worry instead about people who worship Yahweh. Worry about those who would make Jesus’ Abba into Yahweh, a god barely able to contain ‘his’ wrath and dispense ‘mercy.’ He throws his created ones into hell. He acts like a demon and harms people. The only solution? Um . . pay the priests. . .

  • Exactly. It’s just like coming out and living your life freely. I’m glad you agree with me, even though you are trying desperately not to.

  • Does anyone here remember a time when this wasn’t an issue? There was a time when Christians didn’t try to push the issue; they supported the community rather than tried to claim a privileged position in it. Nativity scenes showed up around town, but they weren’t trying to polk the non-Christians in the eye and provoke a court case. I’m not at all sure Jesus would have demanded his rights. Rather he would have lived the Christian Way and trusted that God would have made that enough.

  • ” …the Satanic religion deliberately uses symbols Christians would find horrible in order to taunt and deride Christianity, rather than having something they can present as a positive image of what they do believe. ”

    Well said, most especially — ‘rather than having something they can present as a positive image of what they do believe.’

    ” And, maybe I will get over it or just keep my mouth shut. I have some thinking and praying to do. ”

    You shouldn’t ‘get over it’ and shouldn’t ‘keep my [your] mouth shut’. We all should have some thinking and praying to do.

    Christianity, most especially its liberal minded, is the brightest light of good works and loving attitudes the world has ever known.

    Here are two good examples of ‘loving attitudes’ and ‘good works’ —

    1. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church about LGBT’s —
    “They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”

    2. A popular expression from the Methodists —
    “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

  • ” Christianity…..overall is pretty horrible too. ”

    I’d agree if your were thinking about certain Christians burning at the stake those they didn’t like or approve of. That kind of ‘old’ Christianity is nowadays more kinder and gentler. I think we could call that making ‘spiritual progress and maturity’.

  • Nativity scenes on private property are fine; when they’re on public property, it’s exactly Christians “trying to poke the non-Christians in the eye.”

  • Religious freedom in the United States is at just the right place, more or less. There are minor kerfuffles here and there, the most prominent of which are efforts to stop non-Christians from giving invocations at local government bodies’ meetings. These are by and large settled by missives from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the ACLU, and others. After receiving these the local panjandrums mostly back off, as well they should.

  • I don’t think that’s the point he’s making. In fact he goes on to say the opposite: “Most Americans don’t see things that way. We may disapprove of those who go around proclaiming that Heaven is exclusively reserved for members of their church. We don’t consider them enemies of the state.”

  • Christianity is as different from the gay lifestyle as life is from death.
    Jesus said in John 14:6 I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me.
    John 1:4 In Him was life, and that life was the Light of men.
    Matthew 7:14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
    John 3:36 He that believeth in the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.”

    Religious people much happier and have more ‘life satisfaction’ than others, according to a new study
    A recent study by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture found that a strong correlation exists between religious affiliation and personal happiness
    45 percent of people who attend a religious service weekly say they are ‘very happy,’ while only 28 percent of those who ‘never’ attend said the same
    Similar studies have found that people with faith have higher levels of ‘life satisfaction’ and are better able to cope with difficult situations

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2886974/Study-Religious-people-happier-life-satisfaction-others.html

    CDC: Gay lifestyle fraught with violence
    https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/cdc-gay-lifestyle-fraught-with-violence
    cdc: https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/group/msm/

    Rom. 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

    You may live your life openly and freely as a gay person but you didn’t say happily. I noticed that.

  • So the CDC tells you that you are playing Russian Roulette if you engage in the same sex behaviors and they’re not antigay.
    But if I point it out to you I’m antigay. Riiiight.

    How about if I tell someone who smokes cigarettes that cigarette smoking may send them to an early grave. Does that mean I’m somehow anti people who smoke?

    LOL!

  • No dirty, that’s not what I am saying. But you know that.

    The CDC doesn’t say anything of the sort. PEople who have multiple and anonymous sexual partners and don’t use protection and engage in risky behaviors are at risk. I’m not. That is what the CDC says. The CDC will also tell you that if you smoke, you are engaging in a risky behavior that can have bad consequences for your health. But you don’t attack smokers for existing, or pass laws against smokers, do you, or attempt to harm their lives under the guise of “loving” them– to death.

    I have often wondered why antigay people like you are so invested in having us live miserable, unhappy lives. Why are you so fascinated with anal sex? Why do you need so badly to harm us? What is missing in your own life, or perhaps, what is all too present in your life? The vast majority of the gay people I have known in my life have live happy, fulfilled lives. A few are HIV positive. And STILL live happy fulfilled lives.

    Of course, there are some very unhappy gay people, some of whom are unhappy because they are gay. My brother was such a one. But he would have been unhappy even if he were hetero. JUst not as unhappy. But meanwhile, I lay his death in part at the feet of the holy holy antigays, and what they made him feel in his life that it had no value to him, so that he lived the life you wished for him: lonely, isolated, and afraid– afraid even to tell me his dark secret.

    I very nearly became a Christian some 50 years ago. I eventually decided against it. But I have never met a Christian of your type that didn’t convince me that not being a Christian was the best thing I could do. Your faith, your attitudes, and your “love” are simply toxic.

    Enjoy them.

  • The cdc facts state otherwise.
    But you are the one who brings up the gay stuff. I just write a rebuttal using cdc facts. People who read these threads need to have accurate info – not your nonsense.

  • I am not averse to being corrected on the rare occasion I make an error in word usage, grammar, etc. Though I would appreciate it if you would provide the rule I violated.

  • ” Christianity is not a religion. It is a way of life Jim. ”
    I’d say that Christianity is a way of thinking that influences the way we live.

  • ” …and not dead. ”
    That kind of wording is not smart I’d say. Similar to —
    …and is worse than an unbeliever……1 Timothy 5:8

    I’ve seen many unbelievers as happy and good people, some seemingly living better than those that believe. They are ‘righteous living folks’, happy and contented with their lives.

    I didn’t come for the righteous……Jesus said.

    It seems like there are 3 kinds of people in the world — the lost, the saved and the righteous.

  • The saved are the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ
    2 Corinthians 5:21 – English Standard Version

    For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

ADVERTISEMENTs