Fighting over religion: What to watch for in 2005

Sunday, January 2, 2005

Is it just me, or did public fights about religion escalate dramatically in 2004? The uproar last month over “bringing back Christmas” was just the latest (somewhat silly) example of a yearlong debate about the role of religion in America’s public square.

Consider the presidential campaign, surely the most religion-saturated contest in modern times. One candidate was attacked for being too religious — and the other for not being religious enough. Religious groups of all stripes entered the political arena with unprecedented zeal, motivated by religious convictions about everything from gay marriage to the war in Iraq.

The election, of course, didn’t create the religious divide in America — it only served to highlight how deep and abiding our religious and moral differences have become. Here’s the bad news: The culture-war battles of 2004 are a harbinger of even wider conflicts in 2005 and beyond.

First up may be yet another bruising fight in Congress over President Bush’s faith-based initiatives. Strengthening the capacity of community and faith groups to deliver social services to those in need has strong bipartisan support. But disputes over discrimination in hiring and use of tax money for religious purposes have stalled legislation designed to expand cooperation between government and faith-based programs.

In spite of pressure from the White House (and executive orders designed to bypass Congress), some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are holding out for more safeguards and restrictions before expanding the flow of money to religious groups.

Although the details of the complex debate over faith-based initiatives are mostly ignored by the news media and the public, the outcome could do much to shape the relationship of government and religion for decades to come.

Also far-reaching will be U.S. Supreme Court decisions in three religious-liberty cases, two involving government displays of the Ten Commandments (Van Orden v. Perry and McCreary County v. ACLU) and one concerning the religious freedom of prisoners (Cutter v. Wilkinson).

In 2004, the Court managed to duck deciding the constitutionality of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. But this term, the justices appear ready to define more clearly when government appropriation of religious symbols does and does not violate the First Amendment.

Whatever the Court decides about the commandments, the fight will not end soon. If, as appears likely, the majority of the justices upholds at least one of the displays, it will only be because the setting surrounding the commandments makes them historical or secular enough to pass constitutional muster.

If that happens, people on both ends of the spectrum will remain angry and dissatisfied: Advocates of a “Christian America” will continue to push for formal government acknowledgements of God. And the “freedom-from-religion” crowd will continue to file lawsuits seeking removal of any reference to religion in public buildings. Most Americans, I suspect, just want these lawsuits to go away.

Cutter v. Wilkinson, the case involving prison inmates, won’t get as much attention (the rights of prisoners isn’t a popular cause), but the result may have more lasting significance. At issue is the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law designed to strengthen protections for the free exercise of religion. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that this law violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment because it sends a message of endorsement of religion.

If the Supreme Court agrees with the 6th Circuit, then many other laws passed to accommodate religious exercise might also be in jeopardy. Restricting the government’s ability to pass legislation accommodating religious practice would greatly restrict religious freedom for every American. Whatever you think about prisoners’ rights, this is a case to watch if you care about the right to practice your own faith.

On the public school front, the fight over evolution entered a new round in 2004 with a growing number of state and local boards of education searching for a way to teach alternatives to the prevailing theory. “Intelligent design” has emerged as the latest contender, triggering emotional fights in communities from Georgia to California about what does and doesn’t belong in the science curriculum.

Although supporters of intelligent design insist that the theory “makes no religious claims,” it’s clear that many conservative religious people see the design argument as the next best hope for displacing evolution (now that creationism has lost in the courts). Look for this conflict to spread throughout the nation in the coming year.

Finally, the hottest of the hot-button issues will continue to be gay marriage — a bitter culture-war battle deeply rooted in religious differences. In 2004, advocates on both sides began to invoke the First Amendment to support their argument.

Gay-marriage proponents want the government to define civil marriage, leaving definitions of religious marriage to religious communities. For the state to take sides in promoting one religious view of marriage over others, they argue, violates the establishment clause.

Meanwhile, opponents warn that legalizing same-sex marriage could violate the free-exercise and free-speech rights of religious people and groups. They argue that religious institutions resisting gay marriage could be denied government benefits and religious leaders might be pressured to perform same-sex marriages.

We’ll hear a lot more from both sides about the First Amendment as the gay-marriage debate heats up in 2005.

That’s my watch list — a litany of conflicts with little hope of reaching common ground. All in all, not a very happy forecast for the new year.

“Religious controversies,” wrote George Washington, “are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.”

So it was in 1792 — and so it remains in 2005.

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