Next to the First Amendment, then-President Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 has perhaps come to represent the most popular understanding of religious freedom in the collective mind of America. Because of Jefferson’s “wall of separation” metaphor, some would like the letter to pass back into the shadow of obscurity under which it rested prior to the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision. Others rejoice that the letter provides the lens through which religion itself is defined and applied in contemporary America.
Jefferson’s famous metaphor is important, but it is a star drawing into its orbit the comet of our short attention span.
While I happen to think that refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding that isn’t even happening at your own church is a distortion of what it means to follow Jesus, this is more lament than argument. It makes me sad; and our religious freedom tradition, quite rightly, isn’t particularly concerned about my sadness.
What’s far more frustrating than pro-RFRA sentiment itself is the lack of empathy displayed by some who hold it.
It was put forward by a conservative Christian pastor who says that “Faithful American Christians are increasingly under attack across the country by the gay lobby.” And it’s a proposal for Christian-owned small businesses who don’t want to serve people like me: gay people, especially ones who are out, loud, and proud.
So much of the debate over Indiana’s new religious freedom law revolves around the gap between the letter of the law and the politics behind it. Supporters note that the law doesn’t mention gays and lesbians, and that similar laws (though not identical ones) have been on the books in other jurisdictions for years. Opponents point to the fact that the law’s advocates organized support for it with arguments about protecting business owners who object to being vendors for same-sex weddings. They're both right, just about different things.
The case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby has received extraordinary attention as a site of struggle between faith and law. The Supreme Court’s decision that businesses may refuse on principle to provide contraception coverage has not been a shining hour for religious freedom. Many observers fear that the ruling will do less to protect that freedom than to expand the power of corporations.
Hobby Lobby has overshadowed two other suits this term that offered more compelling instances of conscience in action.
Yesterday I posted about the Hobby Lobby decision, observing that it can’t be both a broad precedent that will protect liberals’ freedom of conscience along with conservatives’ and a narrow ruling that isn’t really a big deal.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court was clarifying that whatever the ruling ultimately means, it definitely isn’t quite as narrow as to apply to just the allegedly abortifacient contraceptives Hobby Lobby’s owners object to.