Jeffrey MacDonald reports on an interesting development: left-of-center religious groups invoking religious liberty much as right-of-center groups have in recent years. A church wants to install solar panels despite the objections of a local historic district commission; elsewhere, groups serving the homeless are looking to faith-based partners to protect their ability to do so. The story provides a lens on the classic questions about what counts as religious exercise and who decides.
Yet it’s a little odd that MacDonald’s framing takes as given this very recent use of the term “religious liberty”—more strategy than principle, an argument to advance a cause.
In the 1990s the U.S. Supreme Court decided a handful of religious liberty cases on the basis of the First Amendment’s free speech clause. The most significant of these was Rosenberger v. University of Virginia (1995). In that case, the University of Virginia had denied funding to a religious student publication called Wide Awake. The case began with a focus on the establishment clause, and it might have been based on the free exercise of religion—but it ended up being about free speech.
It starts off as a standard writeup of a protest and counter-protest of a mosque’s Friday prayers. An accompanying video portrays the two sides as polarized not just in rhetoric but in various cultural markers, starting with the fact that one side is packing the kind of firepower that would have shocked people not so long ago (and would still if the heat-packers weren’t so white).
You know, just a slice of 21st-century American life.