Protecting Institutional Religious Freedom

Protecting Institutional Religious Freedom – Part 1

Rick Plasterer on January 17, 2022

The Religious Freedom Institute reviewed its three year “Freedom for Religious Institutions in Society” (FORIS) project (begun in early 2019) in a two panel presentation on January 5. Thomas Farr, RFI President introduced the “capstone” event saying that FORIS has “has engaged 22 scholars in the United States and abroad to investigate the meaning and value of institutional religious freedom.”

Farr said that Americans tend to think of religious freedom as an individual right, and indeed, it is defended legally as an individual right. But religious freedom “also encompasses the rights of religious communities, or ought to do so, to do things that are natural to those communities.” Those things include worship, training of clergy, teaching of religious doctrines, and requiring “their members to adhere to those doctrines.” Religious freedom should also include the right to participate in public life, to have religious institutions (educational, medical, charitable, and evangelistic), maintain the beliefs and values of the community and that “convey those values to society at large.”

Farr pointed out that contemporary threats to religious freedom, both nationally and internationally, are largely threats to institutional religious freedom. Farr said that “invidious discrimination” is now happening against these institutions. Much of this over the past decade has involved conflict with antidiscrimination laws and policies, but more recently, the indefinite closure of houses of worship by governors and mayors in connection with the coronavirus pandemic has been arbitrary. Two panels of scholars examined these two issues respectively.

Sam Brownback, formerly U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom under the Trump Administration, spoke first. Farr emphasized in introducing Brownback that when religious freedom suffers in the United States, it has an impact on religious freedom in the wider world.

Brownback said that although the domestic religious liberty situation is not “anything like the religious persecution that takes place in, say China,” he agreed with Farr that problems with American religious freedom get “magnified overseas.” America, he said, is “the mother ship” of religious freedom. China is “the leading enabler of human rights abuses around the world.” It is particularly bad, Brownback said, because it is “high tech” persecution. Artificial intelligence, ubiquitous cameras, and social credit scores are all part of this persecution. In this “virtual police state … there will be fewer people locked up and more people in prison.” Brownback does see evidence that the Biden Administration is to some degree following the initiatives of the Trump Administration in pursuing international religious freedom. This bipartisanship makes international religious freedom a strong position. Brownback believes that in “the new cold war” with China, religious freedom “is a key wedge issue for us [i.e., the United States] for much of the world for keeping them from going into the China sphere” He believes we need to talk about persecution in China, especially the persecution of Muslims. But he also predicted “a genocide of religious minorities in Afghanistan” if they are not rescued from the country.

Brownback said that the international religious freedom movement is growing. There are 33 nations in the International Religious Freedom Alliance, which “the United States helped launch.” After two unprecedented religious freedom ministerials under the Trump Administration, and a privately funded RFI conference in Washington last summer, a new ministerial in the United Kingdom will be held this year, as well as a new RFI Summit in Washington this year. He said that “the simple mantra” of this movement is “religious freedom for everybody, everywhere, all the time.”  He added that many of the genocides in modern times have generally been directed at religious groups. He cited the Armenians in World War I, the Jews in World War II, and the Uyghurs Muslims as an example today.

Brownback said that with respect to domestic religious freedom, “this is a growing concern.” He said that religious communities are now being “singled out for a reduction of their rights, and impacting on their ability to freely practice their faith.” He added that “we’ve always found a way to accommodate religious minorities in the United States,” and that many Americans are losing respect for religious diversity. Increasing religious persecution, even antisemitism, will be the result, he believes. Again, this will adversely affect other countries. A new National Committee for Religious Freedom will be launched on January 18 of this year, and will advocate religious freedom for everyone. The pace of change in the world continues to accelerate, Brownback said, “and we’ve got to move with it.”

Farr then turned to Mark Rienzi, Professor of Law at the Catholic University of America, Co-Director of the Center for Religious Liberty there, and President and CEO of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. His panel discussed “Achieving Freedom and Fairness for All Americans and All Their Religious Institutions.” Rienzi said that religious freedom “cannot be atomized,” but religious believers must have the freedom to practice their faith in groups. He was especially enthusiastic about the commitment to “protect religious freedom for everybody everywhere no matter what.” It is important that we see religious freedom as “an important human right” and “respect the freedom of people who disagree with us. And if we respect their freedom to have their own ideas, then we are necessarily going to have to deal with some thorny issues related to religious freedom. Because if people are left free to follow their own ideas about who God is, what God wants of them, how they are supposed to order their lives, well then by definition free people will come up with some different answers.” He said that the government cannot dictate ultimate answers to ultimate questions. These different answers then affect the larger society, because “religious liberty is not something that can be exercised, or is always exercised individually and alone.” Considering the numerous religious institutions in society (hospitals, schools, universities, charities, etc.), this is very consequential.

Timothy Shah, Research Scholar at the University of Dallas, and principal investigator for the FORIS Project, said that the project has produced a “vast number” of articles and reports; “the rich fruits” of the project cannot be summarized in a short time, he said. However, a major challenge to the freedom of religious institutions in the western world are sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) laws and policies.

Shah asked why religious institutions are “so important … When people do religion, they inevitably do religion in ways that require institutions.” Thus, freedom for religious institutions must be part of religious freedom. The material aspect of religious freedom is needed because of the nature of human beings as embodied selves. We are not “disembodied spirits,” Shah said. A problem here is that late modernity tends to treat religious freedom as an interior right only. But “religion in the real world is almost always institutional [and] communal.”  

Shah cited the “Nahdlatul Ulema,” (Awakening of Scholars) the largest Muslim organization in the world, in Indonesia, with 90 million members. He said it is not under the control of the government, unlike the situation in many Muslim countries. Its recent congress adopted the motto “autonomy in service of humanity.” It held that religious organizations cannot fulfill the educational, social, and charitable functions unless they have the “freedom to be who they are.”

It’s also important, Shah said, that religious institutions should not be coerced by the surrounding culture or the government. There is also, Shah said, a deleterious tendency, including in the West, to “tightly regulate” the way religious institutions engage with the wider world.

Paul Marshall, Jerry and Suzie Wilson Chair in Religious Freedom in the Institute for Religious Studies at Baylor University, and also Director of RFI’s South and Southeast Asia Action Team observed that the question of institutional religious freedom has become controversial question in the United States, Canada, and parts of Western Europe. “When it’s has come to the fore in recent Supreme Court decisions in the U.S., years, many people have thought the idea sort of novel or unusual.” But this is wrong. “Usually it has been known or assumed” that religious organizations have rights “including religious freedom rights.” These include 70,000 Catholic kindergartens, with over 7 million pupils, 96,000 primary schools with 35,000 pupils, 50,000 secondary schools with 2 ½ million high school students, 3 million college students, 5 ½ thousand hospitals, 16,000 dispensaries.

There is also the question of what makes a religious institution. Some, Marshall said, have claimed that a profit making institution is cannot be religious. A key criterion, however, is would religious profit making bodies “do things differently” from an entirely non-religious institution. An example of this is Chick-Fil-A closing on Sundays, which is “a very profitable day for restaurants.” This indicates a religious motive overriding a profit motive. He said that because the case of Hobby Lobby is understood as part of the culture war, institutional religious freedom is thought of “a Christian right thing.” But there are many other examples of the religious character of profit making companies. For example, Don Larson, a “high executive in the Hershey chocolate company,” moved to Mozambique and began the Sunshine Nut Company. This business’s profits were then used to finance orphanages in Mozambique. Marshall said that there are “thousands” of similar examples of private for-profit companies with specifically religious motivations. Wegmans, “usually rated as the number one supermarket chain in the United States,” attempts to follow a Catholic ethos, with principles of “solidarity, subsidiarity, [and] the dignity of the human person.” It is ranked as one of the best place to work in the U.S. by Fortune magazine

Marshall quoted Cecile Labord, Professor of Political Theory at Oxford University, to say that the

“state should be secular though its citizens should not have to be. Government neutrality in matter of religion is intended to be a foundation for a lively and diverse societal pluralism, not for society itself to become a mirror of the government. We should be careful of blurring the boundaries between public law and emphasize the distinction of governmental limits and private limits. We must not treat societal organizations simply as quasi-government agencies, this would eradicate the diverse and distinct freedoms required in a plural society.”

Rienzi observed that other kinds of organizations are not questioned in pursuing the objectives that they do by their very nature. Newspapers have the right to publish what they want as a matter of free speech and press; politics and business and moneymaking and education are all regarded as legitimate objectives that can be communally exercised by organizations intended for these various objectives. Religious organizations similarly must pursue their religious objectives as a matter of natural rights.

Rienzi’s panel then turned to the most contentious case involving institutional religious freedom in the Western world today, namely, the impact of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) requirements on religious institutions. This discussion will be the topic of a subsequent article.

It can be viewed here.

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