From time to time I want to address some of the key Hot Button issues that both political parties use to divide us and distract us from their real agendas.
The king of all Hot Button topics is Religion, and more specifically, what special liberties, exemptions and exclusions should our laws allow for religious worship and institutions?
The U.S. Constitution boldly states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting free exercise thereof…”. (Amendment 1). Seems simple enough…..until you dig under the surface.
The “Establishment Clause” seems (to me) to imply that our Government should neither establish a religion (like England had done in the 1530’s under Henry VIII) nor favor one religion over any other.
The “Free Exercise Clause” seems (to me) to imply that our Government should not pass any laws that restrict individuals or religious institutions from exercising their right to follow their beliefs and doctrines.
Beautiful words, but they haven’t always been applied fairly. While our government has never taken the drastic steps to establish or impose a state religion; the de facto religion of America is Protestant Christianity. Christians immigrated to this country and took over. Native Americans were certainly not given free exercise of their religion. Nor were Catholics, or Jews, or African-Americans, or Chinese or Mormons. Or even today, Muslims aren’t as free to exercise their religious beliefs as Christians. And what about the fastest growing segment of the American religious scene: Non-believers (unaffiliateds, secularists, humanists, agnostics or atheists)? Are our rights not-to-believe just as free as theists? Not even close.
Protestant Christians have pretty much run the show in this country since colonial times. In fact, Christians are unabashed about claiming America as a “Christian nation”. They contend that Christians built this country and we are a great nation because of Christian leadership, ingenuity and work ethic.
Some of that last sentence is true. Most of the Founding Fathers were Christian of some sort or another, but not all. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Madison and Thomas Payne all tended more towards Deism than orthodox Christianity. This included a healthy dose of skepticism about the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity and even much of the Bible. Thomas Jefferson wrote his own version of the Bible, in which he removed all references to miracles, talk of Jesus’ divinity and the Resurrection. No way he could win the Republican nomination these days.
Christians were clearly the driving energy behind America’s modern transformation. But to see them as nothing but God’s Force for Good, is just plain bat-shit crazy. Christians enslaved at least 10,000,000 innocent Africans. Once here Christians separated family members, beat and whipped them, lynched them, worked them to death, imprisoned, murdered and raped them on a level the world had never seen. They exterminated Native Americans, enslaved Chinese immigrants and interred Japanese Americans. They committed unspeakable crimes against others just because they were Catholic or Jewish. These unfortunate people were given little to no freedom to exercise their religion beliefs.
Christians, you own your whole legacy….the good, the bad and the ugly. But to a larger point, in America, freedom to exercise one’s beliefs has primarily meant freedom for Christians, at every one else’s expense.
Let me give some examples: Can Christians determine school curriculum and book choices in public schools? Apparently so, it’s been going on for a 100+ years. Can Christians require Bible reading and reciting Christian prayers in public schools? Absolutely, it’s been going on just as long. Can Christians use public spaces upon which to place their religious symbols and celebrate their religious holidays — at the exclusion of any other religion. Sure they can! And boy, they get really pissed when you tell them they can’t.
Are Christians immune to our laws about discrimination? Sometimes I think they are. They want a religious exemption from our most important cherished notion: that all men (and women) are created equal. They claim their religious freedoms are violated if they can’t discriminate against the LBGT community. They also claim their precious religious liberties are threatened if they have to provide coverage for women’s reproductive health care services on their corporate insurance policies.
Name one other non-religious group that is allowed such powers of discrimination or ability to deny people legal services or health care benefits. You can’t, there aren’t any. Christians are one of the most over-privileged groups in America.
This recent (last two decades +/-) push to further immune Christian religious beliefs from laws of our government has come at a time when those same Christians believe that there is a “war” against them by secularists in this country. But it’s not a “war”, it is simply push-back from the unmistakable fact that America is becoming less religious than it ever has in its past. It’s about equality and fairness under the law.
There was a legal case that made big headlines in 2015. After the Supreme Court decision that paved the way for legal, LBGTQ marriages, a county clerk in Kentucky continued to refuse to issue marriage licenses to anyone but heterosexual applicants because doing so would violate her religious beliefs. She was an elected public official and she was the only person in that county with the legal authority to issue marriage licenses. But as an off-the-deep-end Christian, she felt entitled to pick and choose who got licenses and who didn’t. A classic case of Christian entitlement.
Two years later and the clerk is still on the job! Instead of firing her for discriminatory behavior and failure to perform her sworn duty, Kentucky resolved the matter by passing a law that the County Clerk’s signature was no longer required on the marriage certificate for it to be legal. A civil suit against the clerk is still working its way through the courts.
What incredible and outrageous lengths we go through in this country to guarantee religious privilege. The most disgusting example is a legal case known as Burwell v Hobby Lobby — a Supreme Court decision from June of 2014. A brief background:
A previous, seemingly innocuous, legal case known as Employment Division v Smith (1990) started the uproar. Smith, two Native American plaintiffs, sued the Employment Division of the State of Oregon, for denying them unemployment benefits when they were fired for testing positive for mescaline (the psychotropic ingredient of the peyote cactus) while working at a rehab clinic. The men claimed that they used mescaline for religious purposes and therefore this violated their religious liberties.
The court ruled against the plaintiffs. Somehow this case got the attention of politicians, and being good religious men, they saw a grave inequity here. Their response was the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in Congress by an overwhelming bi-partisan vote and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
The RFRA significantly increased protection for religious groups from Federal legislation. Now such legislation is subjected to a higher level of scrutiny: “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”
Specifically, 1) any burden upon religions must be for the “furtherance of a compelling government interest” and 2) it must be the least restrictive way in which to further the government interest.
Translated: Federal legislation intended for “general applicability” (i.e. applies to everyone) can potentially be disregarded by the religious community if it places a burden on their right to exercise their religion. Talk about establishing a privileged class! And exactly what creates a burden??
Well the Supreme Court answered that question in 2014 and the RFRA was at the heart of it. The case is called Burwell vs Hobby Lobby.
The case involved a lawsuit by the Hobby Lobby corporation (and others) against the Federal government (namely Sylvia Burwell the Secretary of Health and Human Services, whose department oversees the Affordable Care Act (ACA also known as Obamacare)) over a provision in the law which mandated for-profit corporations employing more than 50 people to provide health care to their employees including contraceptives.
The owner of Hobby Lobby Inc. is David Green and his family from Oklahoma City, devout Evangelical Christians who believe that life begins at conception. Hobby Lobby is a for-profit corporation that employed approximately 21,000 people at the time. The crux of the suit was that Hobby Lobby claimed that having to provide contraception coverage for its employees imposed a religious burden on the company and its owners that violated their religious rights under the RFRA and the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Now the ACA had already allowed for exemptions on providing contraceptives to religious organizations, non-profits, and companies with no more than 50 employees. But never before had a for-profit corporation been granted such religious privileges.
A 5-4 Conservative majority ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby citing that a) due to Hobby Lobby being a “closely held corporation” with strong religious (Christian) beliefs, providing contraception in the employee health care plan was an undue burden upon the exercise of the owners religious beliefs and b) per the RFRA, the ACA law was not the least restrictive way to further the government interest (the majority suggested that it would be less restrictive if the Government provided and paid for contraceptive coverage instead).
Judge Ruth Ginsburg wrote in her dissent: “”In a decision of startling breadth, the Court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.” And also, “”Until this litigation, no decision of this Court recognized a for-profit corporation’s qualification for a religious exemption from a generally applicable law, whether under the Free Exercise Clause or RFRA. The absence of such precedent is just what one would expect, for the exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities…[60
“. She ended by saying: “The Court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield …”
Indeed, how far can this go? Can a “closely-held Muslim corporation” force female employees to wear burkas to avoid violating the corporation’s religious beliefs? Can a “closely-held Jewish corporation” fire an employee who brings a pork sandwich for lunch? Where does this stop?
On a separate case, a judge in St. Louis has helped us define one boundary. A St. Louis man arrested on heroin distribution charges claimed that he was “a student of Esoteric and Mysticism studies” saying he had created a religious non-profit that aims to get the powerful narcotic to “the sick, lost, blind, lame, deaf and dead members of God’s Kingdom.” He further claimed that his indictment violated federal protections of religious rights because his heroin peddling was an exercise of his “sincerely held religious belief.” (Associated Press). This judge decided the defendant’s claims were illegitimate and he was found guilty. It seems mescaline is acceptable for religious ceremonies, heroin is not.
I predict the “Hobby Lobby” defense will be used hundreds or maybe thousands of times in attempts to push the limits of what does and what doesn’t qualify as restrictions upon religious liberties. How absurd! Either laws apply to everyone, equally or get rid of the law entirely. In a society where special interests can use power, money and influence to usurp our laws, lawlessness will reign. This is the “minefield” cited by Justice Ginsburg.
Same goes for taxes. IRS rules pertaining to churches allow exemptions from paying property taxes, sales taxes and ability to deduct certain “expenses” that businesses and individuals cannot . In exchange, churches are supposed to refrain from endorsing/opposing political candidates and referendums (Johnson Amendment — 1954). But not only have many churches violated this “agreement” but worse, the IRS almost never enforces the rule. Recently, the Trump administration has pushed to repeal this amendment but without requiring churches to pay their share taxes!
The solution isn’t more laws and special classes, it’s less. In my opinion churches are businesses, they are selling a product and often making a profit. And while there are thousands of churches that operate on shoe-string budgets, many churches generate huge wealth for their founders, owners or administrators. Let’s stop the charade. Tax churches like the businesses that they are. Pay your income, sales and property taxes and you can speak freely about political issues if you wish. According to a 2013 study(https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/08/22/you-give-religions-more-than-82-5-billion-a-year/?utm_term=.5e0d78c0a36e)
religions in the U.S. receive at the very minimum
over $80 billion dollars a year in Federal tax subsidies and own at the very minimum $600 billion dollars worth of real estate.
“When people donate to religious groups, it’s tax-deductible. Churches don’t pay property taxes on their land or buildings. When they buy stuff, they don’t pay sales taxes. When they sell stuff at a profit, they don’t pay capital gains tax. If they spend less than they take in, they don’t pay corporate income taxes. Priests, ministers, rabbis and the like get “parsonage exemptions” that let them deduct mortgage payments, rent and other living expenses when they’re doing their income taxes. They also are the only group allowed to opt out of Social Security taxes (and benefits).”
Talk about special treatment under the law! What this means is that all Federal income taxpayers heavily subsidize U.S. religions. That violates my non-religious rights! This tax-free custom originated in medieval Europe because the Church was the wealthiest and most powerful landowner. The tradition has continued to this very day. It is time to end these religious “liberties”
The RFRA legislation and the Hobby Lobby decision represent yet another religious grab for even more extra-judicial rights and liberties, that the rest of us don’t enjoy. In the majority opinion of the Hobby Lobby case it was determined that for-profit companies could be considered persons under the RFRA. Which means that there is no separation between religious beliefs of owners and the corporation itself, even though the corporation is a separate legal entity.
I agree with Justice Ginsburg, “How can a corporation have religious rights?” A corporation is strictly a legal entity formed by completing and filing proper paperwork with the state and the Fed. How can filed paperwork have religious beliefs? Owners voluntarily form corporations to benefit from an extra layer of legal protection and to allow them to qualify for lower income tax rates.
How is it possible for a corporation to act as an entirely separate entity from the owners in the event of legal malfeasance while the religious beliefs of the owners are allowed to flow freely back and forth between the two entities? Either they are separate on all accounts or they are not. Apparently religious (read Christian) people once again get a big and exclusive exemption from the law.
The chart below does a much better job than the Supreme Court or even the First Amendment of determining when religious rights have been infringed:
In the Employment Division vs Smith case the most equitable and fair solution would have been to simply legalize mescaline and peyote. That way there would be no religious privilege — all adults could use the drug without fear of prosecution or discrimination. In the Hobby Lobby case, the Justices should have laughed that case right out of court. The Hobby Lobby corporation has legal rights but shouldn’t have religious (or political affililation) rights — it’s a piece of fucking paper for Christ’s sake.
And how exactly does providing health insurance that might include contraception a burden on the owner’s religious beliefs? No one is forcing them to take contraceptives and the health care decisions of their employees are private. The owners remain unrestricted in practicing their faith and the corporate entity should not be allowed to impose any religious or political beliefs on its employees. Otherwise the rights of the employees are being burdened.
This horrible, narrow-minded, religiously motivated decision must be overturned as soon as possible. It allows religious people special privileges under the law that NO ONE ELSE may claim. Do we as Americans stand for equality, justice and freedom for all? If so, then creating a special class of people, whether it be by religion, wealth, race or gender, is (or should be) unconstitutional and it undermines American democracy. Our greatness will not last long as a nation divided by classes with unequal rights.
We, as Americans of all denominations and beliefs, must fight against the perpetuation of special privileged classes. Religion, in my opinion, is a particularly undeserving candidate for special exemptions. It is, after all, a belief in invisible magical beings for whom there is no physical evidence or proof. If you wish to believe in fairy tales, angels, demons, or elves in the forest that’s your prerogative but at the very least, that type of belief should not entitle you to extra rewards from our government.
Religious liberties should not be a Hot Button issue with which politicians are able to divide us. We already have generous religious protections in the First Amendment. Adding more causes deep rifts in our society. All religions, as well as non-belief, should enjoy equal standing under the law. I will defend your right to believe in whatever you wish, no matter how absurd, as long as it doesn’t interfere with my rights. Will you, religious believers, in kind, defend my rights to believe (or not believe) whatever I wish, as long as it doesn’t interfere with yours? If so, then neither you, nor I, should be able to use our personal beliefs to be exempted from laws of general applicability.
- REGISTER AND VOTE — 2018 ELECTIONS ARE ONLY 14 MONTHS AWAY.
- VOTE AGAINST CANDIDATES THAT INSIST UPON USING RELIGION TO DIVIDE US.
- VOTE AGAINST CANDIDATES THAT BELIEVE THAT RELIGIOUS GROUPS DESERVE MORE SPECIAL PRIVILEGES AND EXEMPTIONS UNDER THE LAW.
- AMERICAN GREATNESS IS DEPENDENT UPON FAIRNESS AND EQUALITY.