The Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University publishes a very informative electronic newsletter about religious developments all over the world. On January 12, 2013, the newsletter carried a story originally published in the Buffalo News, about Joelle Silver, a high school science teacher in a community in upstate New York called Cheektowaga. This melodiously named place, now a suburb of Buffalo, is located in the general vicinity of the so-called Burnt-Over District, which in the nineteenth century was a hotbed of Protestant revivals and other charismatic movements (the Mormons originated in the same neighborhood). Silver (a photo shows her to be an attractive young woman) is a committed Evangelical Christian, thus more or less in continuity with the regional religious history (although the town now has a large Polish community unlikely to be strongly Protestant).
It so happens that Cheektowaga, or at least its high school, also contains a militantly secularist teenager. This individual (no name given in the story) took umbrage at Silver’s displaying a variety of religious objects in the classroom, including posters with religious messages and a “prayer request box” belonging to a students’ Bible study group. The offended student alerted the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a militantly secularist organization operating out of Madison, Wisconsin. In response to its intervention the school ordered Silver to remove her religious materials from the classroom.
Silver sued the school authorities in U.S. district court for violating her constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. Her suit was supported by the American Freedom Law Center, a foundation with headquarters in Ann Arbor, Michigan, self-described as the “first truly authentic Judeo-Christian public interest law firm”. Both organizations engage in a mix of litigation and advocacy (respectively, of “nontheism” and of the Judeo-Christian values supposedly foundational for American democracy). As part of its advocacy, the “nontheist” organization promotes signs wishing people “a happy Solstice” to replace Christmas messages. (I trust that they don’t put any of their signs up on public property, since someone might then sue them on the grounds that worship of the Solstice was part of the ancient Anglo-Saxon religion.)
Needless to say, both organizations deploy lawyers. Rebecca Markert, an attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation”, said: “Public employees, including teachers, have to act neutrally with regard to religion. They cannot push any religion.” Robert Muise, an attorney with the American Freedom Law Center, countered: “They essentially want her to cease being a Christian once she enters school district property.” He added that the other side regards any religious reference in schools “as if it’s some disease that has to be eradicated”. Dennis Kane, the school district superintendent, made a comment that is undoubtedly a correct (if you will, “neutral”) assessment of the situation—to the effect that the district was caught in the middle of a dispute between “two big special-interest groups”, and that it would be sued regardless of what it did or didn’t do.
Americans are addicted to litigation like no other people on earth. The delicate balance between the two religion principles in the first amendment to the US constitution—no establishment and free exercise—continues to assure an avalanche of lawsuits in the federal courts. But similar problems exist in other democracies. The European Center for Law and Justice, located in Strasbourg, is a Christian-inspired organization defending “the spiritual and moral values which are the common heritage of European peoples” (as stated in the Preamble of the Statute of the Council of Europe). In its newsletter of January 8, 2013, the Center reports on four individuals, citizens of the United Kingdom, who claim violations of their freedom of religion. The first two complaints are somewhat similar to that of the aforementioned American high school teacher. Both involve women who, supposedly as an expression of their religious beliefs, were wearing necklaces with small silver crosses. One worked as a check-in clerk for British Airways, the other as a geriatric nurse in a public hospital. Both were ordered to remove these ornaments. The BA case seems rather plausibly based on anti-Christian bias, since the airline has previously accepted Muslim and Sikh headgear. The justification of the order to the nurse to shed her cross was that a patient might be injured as a result of pulling on it (perhaps gripped by a sudden attack of “nontheist” rage?). The second two complaints have to do with an issue south of the navel. One complainant is a public registrar, who refused to conduct civil ceremonies for same-sex couples, the other a marriage counselor who said that he felt unable to work with such couples. Both believe that homosexuality is contrary to God’s will, and both were threatened with termination.
All four cases were appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, on the grounds that domestic law in the United Kingdom has failed to protect their right to freedom of religion. Under the principle of subsidiarity, only if such failure can be shown may a case be carried to the European Court. There is a piquant irony here, given the fact that the Church of England, with the monarch as its head, is still established by law as a state religion.
I am reluctant to enter into the legal ramifications of these cases. I am not a constitutional lawyer. It seems to me that the four European cases are more serious in terms of religious rights than the case of the American high school teacher. Presumably school authorities are within their rights to limit some religious expressions in the classroom (say, by prohibiting a teacher coming in with a big sign saying “Repent, the end is nigh!”). I don’t really know whether Silver’s collection of Christian messages comes close to that limit. I would point out that whatever violations of religious freedom do exist in the U.S. and in Western Europe, they pale compared to the massive persecution of Christians in many countries, be it by states or by tolerated lynch mobs. It is useful to keep a sense of proportion in this (as in most other matters).
But I do want to make a general observation: In all these cases the authorities accused of violating the plaintiffs’ rights operate with a definition of religion as a private matter to be kept out of public space. There is here a general issue of government overreach, as clearly illustrated by the (still unresolved) attempt by the Obama administration to force Catholic institutions to provide contraception coverage in their employees’ health plans. Beyond that, though, there is a very ideological view of the place of religion in society. In other words, religion is to be an activity engaged in by consenting adults in private. The attorney for the Judeo-Christian side in the aforementioned American case had it quite right when he compared the treatment of his client’s religion with measures of disease control. This is not an attitude one would expect to find in a Western democracy. It is curiously reminiscent of policies toward religion in Communist countries and toward non-Muslims under Islamic rule.
An aggressive secularism seems to be on the march in all these cases. It seems more at home in Europe, which is far more secularized than America. Even in the United Kingdom, it seems, the drums of the French Revolution still reverberate. But how is one to explain this sort of secularism in the United States? The “nones”—that is, those who say “none” when asked for their religious affiliation by pollsters—are a very mixed lot. One theme that comes through is disappointment with organized religion. There is an anti-Christian edge to this, since Christian churches continue to be the major religious institutions in this country. Disappointment then, or disillusion—but why the aggressive hostility? There is yet another theme that comes through in the survey data: An identification of churches (and that means mainly Christian ones) with intolerance and repression. I think that this is significant.
Let me venture a sociological hypothesis here: The new American secularism is in defense of the sexual revolution. Since the 1960s there has indeed been a sexual revolution in America. It has been very successful in changing the mores and the law. It should not be surprising that many people, especially younger ones, enjoy the new libidinous benefits of this revolution. Whether one approves or deplores the new sexual culture, it seems unlikely to be reversed. Yet Christian churches (notably the Catholic and Evangelical ones) are in the forefront of those who do want to reverse the libertine victory. Its beneficiaries are haunted by the nightmare of being forced into chastity belts by an all too holy alliance of clerics and conservative politicians. No wonder they are hostile!