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News Flash to Christian Right: Religious Freedom Doesn't Give You the Right to Control Other People

There is real religious persecution in the world. Right-wing Christians in America aren’t experiencing it.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Richard Thornton

The following is an excerpt from Robert Boston's new book,Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do(Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2014). Copyright © 2014 by Rob­ert Boston. All rights reserved. Used with permission of the publisher;www.­prometheus­books.com

Certain words should not be tossed around lightly. Persecution is one of those words.

Religious Right leaders and their followers often claim that they are being persecuted in the United States. They should watch their words carefully. Their claims are offensive; they don’t know the first thing about persecution.

One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of real religious persecution in the world. In some countries, people can be imprisoned, beaten, or even killed because of what they believe. Certain religious groups are illegal and denied the right to meet. This is real persecution. By contrast, being offended because a clerk in a discount store said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” pales. Only the most confused mind would equate the two.

Far from being persecuted, houses of worship and the religious denominations that sponsor them enjoy great liberty in America. Their activities are subjected to very little government regulation. They are often exempt from laws that other groups must follow. The government bends over backward to avoid interfering in the internal matters of religious groups and does so only in the most extreme cases.

What the Religious Right labels “persecution” is something else entirely: it is the natural pushback that occurs when any one sectarian group goes too far in trying to control the lives of others. Americans are more than happy to allow religious organizations to tend to their own matters and make their own decisions about internal governance. When those religious groups overstep their bounds and demand that people who don’t even subscribe to their beliefs follow their rigid theology, that is another matter entirely.

Before I delve into this a little more, it would be helpful to step back and take a look at the state of religious liberty in the United States today. Far from being persecuted, I would assert that religion’s position is one of extreme privilege.

Consider the following points:

  • Religious groups enjoy complete tax exemption, a very powerful and sought-after benefit.
  • Unlike secular nonprofit groups, houses of worship are not required to apply for tax-exempt status. They receive it by mere dint of their existence. Houses of worship are assumed to be tax exempt as soon as they form. This exemption is rarely examined again and is revoked only in cases of extreme fraud (such as someone claiming that the entity he or she has formed is a church when it’s really a for-profit business).
  • Houses of worship are free from the mandatory reporting obligations that are imposed on secular nonprofit groups. For example, secular groups that are tax-exempt must fill out a detailed financial form and submit it to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) every year. This document, called a  Form 990, must be made available for public inspection. Houses of worship and ministries are not required to fill out and submit these forms.
  • Religious entities are not required to report their wealth to any government agency. The question often comes up about how much money houses of worship raise every year or what the value of the land they hold is. There is no way of knowing this because they are not required to tell anyone.
  • The IRS has the power to audit individuals and secular groups at the merest suspicion of wrongdoing or financial irregularities. Houses of worship, by contrast, are very difficult for the IRS to audit. This is so because Congress passed a special law governing church audits that requires the IRS to show heightened scrutiny before initiating such procedures. In addition, church audits must be approved by highly placed IRS officials.
  • Religious groups enjoy a loud and robust public voice. They own television and radio stations all over the country (all tax exempt, by the way). They own publishing arms, and they maintain various outreach sites on the Internet. The ability of religious groups to proselytize and spread their theology is limited only by the imaginations of their leaders.
  • Across the country, religious groups own a network of hospitals, secondary schools, colleges, social-service agencies, and other entities that often enjoy a cozy relationship with the government. Many of these institutions are subsidized directly with tax funds—even though they may promote religion. In recent years, religious groups that sponsor charitable services have seen themselves open to a host of new taxpayer assistance through the so-called faith-based initiative.
  • Religious groups are often exempt from laws that secular organizations must follow. A house of worship or a ministry can fire employees at will if those workers violate (or are merely suspected or accused of violating) some tenet of the faith. A religious school, for example, could fire a woman who becomes pregnant out of wedlock. A corporation or a secular nonprofit would not be able to do this.
  • In many cases, religious groups are freed from following even basic laws designed to promote health, safety, and general welfare. Houses of worship are routinely exempted from laws designed to improve access to facilities for those with disabilities, for example. In some states, daycare centers and other facilities sponsored by religious groups are wholly exempt from routine inspection laws.
  • Many religious groups engage in extensive lobbying on Capitol Hill and in the state capitals. Under federal law, there is virtually no regulation of their lobbying activities. Federal law exempts from oversight “a church, its integrated auxiliary, or a convention or association of churches that is exempt from filing a Federal income tax return.” This means that, unlike other groups, religious organizations are not required to report the money they spend attempting to influence legislation or to register their lobbyists. In rare cases, some states have tried to impose minimal regulations, such as public financial-disclosure reports, on houses of worship. The religious groups often fight such laws and call them an infringement of their religious-liberty rights.
  • Many legislators are quick to placate religious groups and the clergy. The results of their lobbying campaigns are often successful. In the 1990s, when some religious groups began to complain about experiencing difficulties with zoning issues and the ability to build houses of worship where they pleased, Congress was quick to pass a special law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. This law essentially trumps local zoning regulations with a federal fiat—even though, for many years, zoning had been considered a matter best handled by local officials.
  • Religious groups are often treated with special deference in cases of suspected law breaking. Anyone who doubts this need not look beyond the experience of the Roman Catholic Church during the pedophilia scandal. A secular corporation that engaged in such a massive cover-up and acts of deception would have found its top leaders behind bars. Yet in that scandal, only a handful of relatively low-level clergy were held accountable.

I have created this list not necessarily to criticize or call for changing these policies (although some of them are overdue for scrutiny) but to make the point that the leaders of religious organizations have very little reason to complain. Their position is an exalted one. They are well regarded by lawmakers, and their institutions are not only tax supported in some cases but are also beyond the reach of secular law. What they are experiencing is not persecution; it is preferential status.

Why, then, is there so much complaining from the Religious Right? (And it does come primarily from religious conservatives. Mainline and moderate clergy tend to understand their position of privilege and appreciate it.) Why do we hear so many cries about persecution?

Primarily we hear this because, despite their cushy position in society, religious groups do not get everything they want. In the case of ultraconservative religious groups, some of what they want is unrealistic or would require a complete reordering of society and perhaps a different constitution. In other words, our nation is not the theocracy that many in the Religious Right would prefer. When they attempt to make our society more theocratic, plenty  of Americans  resist. Our refusal to roll over and submit to them is, to their mind, a form of persecution.

Evolving cultural trends have also led to a certain degree of panic among religious conservatives. For years, they engaged in gay bashing with abandon. They were confident that the public was on their side, and for some years, the picture did indeed remain murky when it came to questions of LGBTQ rights.

As years passed, public opinion on issues such as the ability of same-sex couples to adopt or gays to receive employment protection began to change. In 2003, a milestone occurred when same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts in the wake of a ruling by the state’s supreme judicial court.

While the ruling may have cheered LGBTQ activists, it opened up another front in the culture wars. States became battlegrounds. Several states adopted constitutional amendments to bar same-sex marriage after campaigns led by the Religious Right and, in the case of California, bankrolled by the Catholic Church and the Mormons.

Opponents of marriage equality looked to be on a roll. Then, in 2012, their momentum stalled. Three states – Maryland, Maine, and Washington – voted for marriage equality. A fourth, Minnesota, voted down a state constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage. Not long after that, public-opinion polls began to show, for the first time ever, majority support in favor of marriage equality. Among younger people, the question wasn’t even close. One poll showed that 81 percent of younger Americans said they favored marriage equality.

Statistics like this really put religious conservatives into a state of panic. It looked as if the work they had done to roll back same-sex marriage might be undone in the future.

As the national discussion shifted to marriage equality, something important was overlooked: how much ground the Religious Right had lost over the issue of LGBTQ rights in general. Fifteen years ago, even most LGBTQ activists weren’t pushing for same-sex marriage; many of them considered that a long-term goal. Suddenly the issue was thrust into the national spotlight, and indications were that public sentiment was shifting.

In the face of this, Religious Right groups could do little but start to spin wild tales of persecution. They argued that they had been forced to accommodate LGBTQ Americans in certain ways, or that they soon would be.

The Religious Right’s beef, then, would seem to be with the direction of the culture. To be sure, the legislature and the legal system can sometimes push the culture along. When Massachusetts’s supreme court ruled that marriage must be extended to same-sex couples, some residents of that state were undoubtedly upset. Some even lobbied for changing the state constitution to bar the practice. But that effort failed, and, in time, the waters calmed. No house of worship has been forced to admit gay members or perform services for them. By and large, most people seem to have moved on—except for a fundamentalist fringe.

A second area where one often hears the cry of persecution involves public schools. Public schools serve young people from a variety of religious and philosophical backgrounds. They are not the exclusive property of any one religious group. Yet fundamentalist Christians, looking at the schools and seeing all of those “unsaved” youngsters, can’t help but salivate. They tend to view the schools as mission fields.

Public schools can never be that. Courts have been clear about this. That hasn’t stopped the religious Right from trying. When they are curbed in their efforts to use the public schools for evangelism, they often cry persecution and assert that their religious freedom is being violated.

Religious freedom gives every student the right to pray in a public school in a private and nondisruptive way. Students may also read religious texts during their free time and engage in voluntary religious activities with their friends (again, in a nondisruptive way). Many secondary schools now have student-run religious clubs that meet during noninstructional time.

Why isn’t this enough for the Religious Right? It’s because all of these activities are focused on individuals. They don’t really allow for aggressive forms of proselytizing. And proselytizing is what the Religious Right wants.

Likewise, we often hear claims of persecution when government refuses to help religious groups enforce their theology or spread sectarian messages. Again, these claims are misguided. If the government invaded the sacred and private space of churches and attempted to tell clergy which symbols they could post on their own property, then that would indeed be persecution. It would not be tolerated. But that’s not what’s happening when aggressive religious groups are told they do not have the right to monopolize public space and link their symbols to government.

Defenders of the Ten Commandments often argue that the document is merely legalistic in nature. Anyone who takes the time to read it can see that this isn’t true. Several of the commandments on the first tablet are religious in nature and have no counterpart in our secular laws. The clear purpose of displaying the Ten Commandments is to promote one religious view above others. This is made obvious by backers of these displays, who often talk about using the commandments to influence people’s religious behavior.

It’s not persecution to stop the government from endorsing one religious view over others. Our Constitution, the Supreme Court has noted several times, calls for neutrality on religious issues. It’s not neutrality when the laws of a certain theological perspective are elevated to a position of prominence above all others. The purpose of such displays is almost always to send a message: Certain believers are insiders with the government and enjoy its favor. All others are on the outside and are, at best, second-class citizens. If there’s any persecution going on here, it’s against the people deemed lesser citizens because they don’t share the theology expressed on those tablets.

The great irony here is that what the Religious Right is trying to do – forge a government that bows to its repressive theology – would result in a great deal of persecution. We’ve had a taste of this already, and it’s a bitter taste indeed. Across the country, legislators, prodded by Religious Right groups, are trying to pass laws banning the imposition of Islamic law. (Newsflash for these guys: the First Amendment already bans the imposition of religious law.) Some of these measures are so sweeping or poorly written that they would ban purely religious practices that Muslims consider to be part of a personal law that is binding on believers of that faith.

When the Religious Right raises bogus claims of persecution, it belittles the sufferings of those believers who truly are persecuted.  I would advise members of that movement to learn what real persecution is.

Go to Saudi Arabia, where it’s illegal to even open a Christian church, and experience the fear of those Christian believers who dare to worship in private homes, aware that at any moment they may be imprisoned.

Visit North Korea, where all religions have been swept away and replaced with a bizarre form of worship of the state and its leader that purports to promote self-reliance but, in reality, merely serves as a vehicle for oppression.

Visit any region under the control of the Taliban, a movement so extreme that, in Afghanistan, they trashed that nation’s cultural heritage by blowing up two sixth-century statutes of Buddha because they were declared false idols by religious leaders who are intolerant of any other faith but Islam.

There is real religious persecution in the world. Right-wing Christians in America aren’t experiencing it. The fact that a same-sex couple may live on your block is not persecution; a huge department store choosing to display secular holiday symbols in December is not persecution. A court ruling enforcing the separation of church and state by removing sectarian symbols from the courthouse is not persecution.

A Religious Right legal group called the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has a telling statement on its website. The group, despite its name, isn’t really about defending freedom – except  the freedom of a religious zealot to make moral decisions for you.

On its website, the ADF states that it “seeks to recover the robust Christendomic theology of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.” That’s really the problem, isn’t it? When leaders and members of the Religious Right go looking for heroes of religious freedom, they don’t turn to Roger Wil­liams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, or even the Baptist preacher John Leland. They turn to Constantine the Great.

It’s no surprise that many Americans would rather not live in a society governed by a fifth-century understanding of church and state. Many Americans believe that to even suggest it and hold it up as a good thing is alarming. Many Americans are going to do all they can to resist anyone or any movement attempting to impose that on them.

Standing up to and resisting this type of fundamentally anti-American interpretation of the relationship between religion and government is far from persecution. Many of us would consider it something quite different: good, old-fashioned patriotism.  

Rob Boston is director of communications at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. His latest book is "Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn't Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do."

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