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Accommodation of Conscience: An American Tradition

Posted on November 21st, 2011 Freedom of Religion,Religious Liberty | No Comments »

I was privileged to speak at Duke Law School yesterday about Ward v. Wilbanks, an Alliance Defense Fund case in which Eastern Michigan University expelled a counseling graduate student for her religious beliefs and her unwillingness to perform counseling that violated her conscience.  I am grateful to the Federalist Society — both the national organization and the Duke chapter – for hosting the event.

In my presentation, I recounted some manifestations of the long American tradition of accommodating conscience.  Colonies and young states disestablished their churches (and the federal government never established a national church) in part on the ground that compelling direct support of the inherently religious activities of a particular house of worship or denomination can violate the consciences of those who dissent from some or all of that church’s beliefs.  Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution permits the incoming (or re-elected) President to “affirm” rather than “swear” to “faithfully execute the Office . . . ,” an accommodation of those that believe that Christians ought not to swear oaths.  The United States has long accommodated many of those who have a conscientious objection to military service.  Federal and state laws protect at least some of those who conscientiously object to participation in or payment for abortion, sterilization, or contraception.

The point, of course, is that what Ms. Ward seeks in her lawsuit is not particularly unusual in American law and history.  Contrary to this long tradition, EMU failed to accommodate her conscience, expelling her for declining to participate in activities that would have violated her religious convictions — and for refusing to change her religious beliefs.  Harm to third parties from her exercise of conscience was minimal to non-existent.  I am hopeful that the U.S. Court of  Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which recently heard oral argument on Ms. Ward’s appeal of a district court ruling against her, will issue a ruling consistent with the American tradition of accommodating conscience.


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Lions (and Tigers) and Prayers, Oh My!

Posted on November 16th, 2011 Freedom of Religion | 7 Comments »

My colleague, Jordan Lorence, wrote a blog about the recent prayers that took place on the Penn State Nittany Lions’ football field before last Saturday’s game.  In it he was surprised to see that no groups on the left had come out and criticized this event.   His very logical conclusion was that even those groups would have the public relations sense not to criticize prayers that were lifted up over such a tragedy as has been recently exposed.  Sorry, Jordan, you not only spoke to soon, but you also assumed that such groups would have the common sense or decency to let it go.  No such luck.

Just today, I came across a press release sent out by our atheist friends at the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).  Can you guess what it was about?  Yep.  The prayers offered at the football game.  Apparently not too worried about the public relations debacle that the objection presents, the FFRF had some harsh words for the two schools.  Before it lashed out at those involved, it made clear that it spoke for its 17,000 members across the country, 600 of which were in Pennsylvania.  Of course, FFRF does not speak for the 100,000+ at the stadium or the millions of viewers on television that did not object to the prayers.

Attempting to capitalize on a statement made by one of the coaches that the decision to pray was a “no-brainer” given the circumstances, FFRF retorted that “the coaches failed to use their [brains].”  A bit childish, if you ask me.  But that’s not all.  In an amazing display of irony, FFRF quotes from the Bible.  They claim that Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount support their claim that to pray publicly is to engage in “rank hypocrisy.”  First, let me say that I am glad to see that the FFRF is reading the Bible, or at least part of it.  But it is a bit odd  to say that you don’t believe what the Bible says, but yet quote it in an attempt to  prove your point.  FFRF’s reliance upon this scripture is, unsurprisingly, mistaken.  This passage is not condemning public prayer—just read Daniel.  It is condemning those who pray publicly just to bring attention to themselves.  It addresses the condition of the heart, not the prayer.  So was everyone praying really just grandstanding–not actually caring about those victims whom they prayed for–but merely trying to look religious?  I doubt it.  FFRF should stick to what it does best, misinterpreting the Constitution, rather than misinterpreting the Bible.

One final thought.  Does it violate the so-called separation of church and state to have a prayer before a collegiate sports event that anyone can participate in, or not.  Don’t think so.  Was anyone coerced to participate?  Nope.  It’s quite incredible to claim that the Founding Fathers were drafting a document forbidding any “government” participation in prayer while they were engaging in it themselves.  But don’t bother with the facts.  According to the FFRF, our Constitution is a living and breathing document that evolves into whatever we (or, a few of us, at least) want it to say.  But that’s a whole other post.


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George Will: Vanderbilt Violates Religious Groups’ Right to Association

Posted on November 8th, 2011 Freedom of Religion | 6 Comments »

Influential columnist George F. Will wrote a column last week criticizing Vanderbilt University’s decision to force student-led religious groups on campus to accept nonbelievers as members in order to stay meeting on campus.  His insightful opinions piece explains why the Constitution forbids such actions by public universities, and why it is unwise for private universities, like Vanderbilt, to pursue such ill-conceived policies:

Illustrating an intellectual confusion common on campuses, Vanderbilt University says: To ensure “diversity of thought and opinion” we require certain student groups, including five religious ones, to conform to the university’s policy that forbids the groups from protecting their characteristics that contribute to diversity.

Although a private university is under no obligation to obey the Constitution ( because the Constitution restrains only governmental power), Vanderbilt should take a lead in building diversity in the marketplace of ideas by allowing religious groups to require that their members and officers to agree with the beliefs and advocacy of the organization.  That is what most other campus groups regularly do at Vanderbilt and elsewhere.  Why should only religious groups be forced to accept people who disagree with the group’s beliefs?

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Atheists and Agnostics Are the Largest Affiliation of Yale Law School Students

Posted on November 3rd, 2011 Freedom of Religion | 10 Comments »

A recent survey of the religious affiliations of students at Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut shows that more students identified as atheist or agnostic than any other group, edging out those who identified with any Christian group by a nose. Atheists accounted for 20.1% of the Yale Law students, and another 13.7% identified as agnostic. This total of 33.8% just surpassed the number of students identified with any type of Christian-related group:


What is interesting is that Yale undergraduates describe themselves as much more religious than those in the law school, with a much smaller percentage of atheists and agnostics:

At the law school, a whooping 49% of the Yale Law students agreed that religion is “not too/not at all important” in their lives,  compared with 16% of Americans who said so in a national poll.  Only 26% of Yale Law students said religion is “very important” in their lives, compared to 56% of Americans nationally. Here is the graphic from that survey:

Yale has moved far from its Christian roots. Yale College was founded by ten Congregational ministers.  In 1701, the General Court of Connecticut passed an act establishing the new college, stating that it was a place:

“wherein Youth may be instructed in the Arts & Sciences who through the blessing of Almighty God may be fitted for Publick employment both in Church & Civil State.”

David A. Lockmiller, Scholars on Parade: Colleges, Universities, Costumes and Degrees (New York: MacMilam, 1969), p. 70, quoted from).

Other Yale documents show the explicit Christian purposes of the school:

“Every student shall consider the main end of his study to wit to know God in Jesus Christ and answerably to lead a Godly, sober life.”

from Williams C. Ringenberg, The Christian College: A History of Protestant Higher Education in America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), p. 38, taken from).

One observation I would make from this data:
Christians should consider applying to Yale Law School as students, and if qualified, apply to teach there as professors.

One observation I would make:
I encourage Christians to apply to attend Yale Law School as students, and to apply there to work as faculty, too.

 

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A Christ-Centered College Moves to Preserve Its Identity: Why the Fuss?

Shorter University, a Christ-centered institution of higher education in Georgia, recently adopted a Personal Lifestyle Statement for university employees.  The first section, entitled “Christian Commitment and Membership in a Local Church,” states as follows:

Shorter University will hire persons who are committed Bible believing Christians, who are dedicated to integrating biblical faith in their classes and who are in agreement with the University Statement of Faith. Moreover, employees are expected to be active members of a local church.

The second section sets forth four “Principles of Personal Conduct,” addressing loyalty to the institution’s mission, as well as conduct regarding illegal drugs, sexuality, and alcohol.  The principle regarding sexuality states as follows:  “I reject as acceptable all sexual activity not in agreement with the Bible, including, but not limited to, premarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality.”

There is nothing unusual about a religious organization articulating its doctrinal beliefs and ethical norms.  Nor is there anything unusual about a religious organization expecting the members of its community to embrace its doctrines and follow its ethical standards.  Indeed, these are appropriate and necessary measures designed to maintain the religious identity of an institution over time.

But certain media and other observers are simply shocked that Shorter took these steps.  What to make of this?  To be sure, a growing number of Americans approve of same-sex sexual behavior, and thus disagree with the Bible’s teachings.  But, it seems to me, there is something even more fundamental going on here.  Many of the commenters have drunk deeply at the well of radical individualism, deeming it out-of-bounds for a community to come together around shared beliefs — and to expect its members to act consistently with those beliefs.  Of course, such extreme individualism threatens the idea of community itself.  We Americans have a tendency to chafe against all sources of external authority, too often embracing extreme versions of autonomy.  Although self-reliance and independence are good things, even virtues become vices when taken to extremes.

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