Defending religious freedom

Writing on the “On Faith” blog of the Washington Post, Georgetown University professor of government Michael Kessler asserts that the Supreme Court is losing a “big defender of religious freedom” with the impending retirement of David Souter:

Souter may be best known for his razor-sharp majority opinion in the Ten Commandments case McCreary County v. ACLU, 545 U.S. 844 (2005). McCreary County had posted the Ten Commandments, first on its own, then in two subsequent displays with other historical documents, meant to soften the religious intent of the display…. The record was fairly clear that the legislation requiring the displays was originally intended to promote a sectarian endorsement of the Ten Commandments….

Souter’s opinion, besides cutting to the heart of the endorsement problem, argued persuasively on historical grounds that the twin prongs of the First Amendment’s religion clauses — establishment and free exercise — were intended to protect individual religious freedom: “The Framers and the citizens of their time intended not only to protect the integrity of individual conscience in religious matters, but to guard against the civic divisiveness that follows when the Government weighs in on one side of religious debate; nothing does a better job of roiling society.”

Against Justice Scalia’s dissenting view that government could… endorse basic tenets of monotheism, Souter argued that the Founders practiced and required neutrality. Without official neutrality on matters of doctrine, the government becomes embroiled in sectarian disputes, choosing some sectarian positions over others: “We are centuries away from the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre and the treatment of heretics in early Massachusetts, but the divisiveness of religion in current public life is inescapable. This is no time to deny the prudence of understanding the Establishment Clause to require the Government to stay neutral on religious belief, which is reserved for the conscience of the individual.”

It’s worth reading the whole post. And it’s worth reflecting on how Republicans like Souter who live in New England are very different from the Republican “base” in other parts of the country: good solid fiscal conservatives with a strong libertarian streak when it comes to social issues. If you went into most Unitarian churches in New England even forrty years ago, chances are the great majority of the churchgoers would have been Republicans.

9 thoughts on “Defending religious freedom

  1. Ted

    In Youngstown, Ohiothe Republican Party County Chairman was a member of the Unitarian church.

  2. Bill Baar

    So what of our Illinois Pharmacists who refuse to dispense morning-after-pill as a matter of conscience, and are told their acceptance of an Illinois Rx License requires them to fill a script regardless of their personal belief?

    [i]Scalia argued that the Court has “never held that an individuals religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate.” [/i]

    That’s pretty much the Liberal case I’ve heard demanding the Pharmacists comply and the one our Gov Blagojevich made to progressive’s acclaim before his impeachment.

    Liberals and Progressives not always Liberatarians and it’s that Liberatarian center that they’re running afoul of at amazing clip now that there in power.

  3. Dan

    Earl and Ted — There must be lots more Republican UUs out there whom we still admire. Maybe someone will make a list.

    Bill — I can’t resist pointing people to the Political Compass Web site, which places political position on Cartesian coordinates, where the x axis is the traditional left vs. right, and the y axis is libertarian vs. authoritarian. Based on the Political Compass test, I’m as far to the left as you can get, and pretty dang far out on the libertarian scale — whereas the allegedly “liberal” Obama is right of center, and pretty far into authoritarian territory. I suspect there are almost no U.S. politicians who get very far into libertarian territory (including the so-called “libertarian” party), and almost no U.S. politicians who are truly left of center. So I would argue that there are essentially *no* progressive U.S. politicians these days, and the “liberals” are all center-right. On top of that, nearly all U.S. politicians today are in authoritarian territory (which is where I’d put Scalia, by the way), or barely over the line into center-libertarian territory. Explore the Political Compass Web site, and you’ll see what I mean.

    In short, from my leftist perspective the distinction between “liberal” and “conservative” in U.S. politics is meaningless — that is how far to the right the country has gone in the past half century. And from my clearly libertarian perspective there are no U.S. politicians who come anywhere near me — that is how far the authoritarian agenda has progressed in the U.S. in the past half century.

  4. Bill Baar

    I agree Left and Right say little these days. In part it’s because I think there’s a great rehashing in minds about just what’s “left”, and what’s “right”.

    My only issue is I see little of that rehashing going on among UUs. The rights of a Pharmacists being a nice example were I suspect many UUs squarely on Scalia’s side as quoted. This is only going to get bigger with Health Care Reform and the rights of providers to decline to perform abortions part of a federal basket of eligible procedures.

    I’ll be damned if I can name a UU getting into the depths of these issues. We seldom get past the slogan phases…..

    …perhaps for fear of finding ourselves in bed with Justice Scalia?

    One reason why I think Liberalism / Progressivism in for a huge wake up call with Prez Obama. He’s going to force thinking on nasty contradictions.

  5. Bill Baar

    PS my daughter had me take one of those political attitude tests and I evaluated as a moderate only because my extremes netted each other out.

  6. Amy

    I just took the test and live way down in the lower left-hand corner, beyond Mandela and the Dalai Lama.

    Economic Left/Right: -8.38
    Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -7.74

    Are we too alike to work together? ;-)

    I don’t believe New England or its UUs have changed all that much over the past 40 years. What has changed is the Republican Party. Specter may be an opportunist (I’m not sure) but he is right when he says the GOP has left people of his views behind. The problem for people like me is that the Dems have rushed into the center. It has been effective in the short-term–it got DLC protege Clinton elected twice, right?–but it’s too far right (on the economic scale) to be good for us. C.f. what said Clinton and his crew did to the economy with their reckless combining of banking and insurance.

  7. Dan

    Amy — You write: “Are we too alike to work together?”

    Wait, I thought all that mattered for church staff was the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. if you’re an INTJ, then maybe we’re in trouble.

    You also write: “The problem for people like me is that the Dems have rushed into the center.”

    Or maybe to the right of center. when I hear the conservatives accusing Democrats of being “socialists,” I laugh sadly — partly because that shows an unbelievable misunderstanding of what a socialist actually looks like, and partly because there are no U.S. politicians who are even vaguely socialist. I mean, Barack Obama is to the right of Richard Nixon when it comes to economic policy.

  8. Bill Baar

    I suspect I’m one of the few UUs who has ever paid dues to the Socialist Party, held a party membership card, or attended a party convention.

    Obama’s been close to Socialist circles in Chicago. But he’s really a machine guy and the machines not about owing the means of production, as shaking down the means of production.

    When Obama made that joke at Arizona State yesterday about putting the IRS on the University Trustees, it was only half-in-jest.

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