The Latest Anti-Obama Conspiracy: Freedom to “Worship”?

OpinioJuris parrots a concern on the far right that Obama’s recent public reference to religious freedom as the “freedom to worship” somehow reduces the right. Emphasis and red numbering are mine:

Recently, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been caught using the phrase “freedom of worship” in prominent speeches, rather than the “freedom of religion” the President called for in Cairo. [. . . .]

To anyone who closely follows prominent discussion of religious freedom in the diplomatic and political arena, this linguistic shift is troubling.

The reason is simple. Any person of faith knows that religious exercise is about a lot more than freedom of worship. It’s about (1) the right to dress according to one’s religious dictates, (2) to preach openly, (3) to evangelize, (4) to engage in the public square. Everyone knows that (5) religious Jews keep kosher, (6) religious Quakers don’t go to war, and (7) religious Muslim women wear headscarves—yet “freedom of worship” would protect none of these acts of faith.

Those who would limit religious practice to the cathedral and the home are the very same people who would strip the public square of any religious presence. They are working to (8) tear down roadside memorial crosses built to commemorate fallen state troopers in Utah, (9) to strip “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, and they recently (10) stopped a protester from entering an art gallery because she wore a pro-life pin.

Both of the central contentions of the article about the limited reach of “freedom of worship” — bolded above — are critically wrong, as are their supporting examples. First, as to the reach of “freedom of worship,” numbers 2, 3, and 4 are covered by the First Amendment right to freedom of religion only secondarily. Those rights are best asserted, and emphatically protected, under the free speech clause of the Amendment. Any one of a million Supreme Court cases would be on point for this proposition, but let’s start with Hague v. CIO, 307 U.S. 496 (1939):

Wherever the title of streets and parks may rest, they have immemoriably been held in trust for the public use and, time of out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thought between citizens, and discussing public questions.

Evangelists can rest easy: no-one is going to take away their right to bother the rest of us anytime soon. Further, as to numbers #1, 5, 6, and 7, the phrase “freedom of worship” is legally equivalent to the “freedom of religious expression”: Black’s Law Dictionary defines worship as “any form of religious devotion or service showing reverence for a divine being,” and the cases support that analysis. See Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992).

Our favorite new conspiracy theorists also go astray when reading the freedom of religious exercise too broadly. Questions about whether it’s right to “strip the public square of any religious presence” aren’t about “free exercise,” which refers to the individual’s right to practice his faith — they’re about the establishment of religion, which deal with the individual’s right to push his faith on the rest of us, through state-sponsored symbols, political acts, etcetera. I can’t help but think that this confusion is deliberate: for the far-far right, the right to free exercise should include the right to bring the rest of the world under their faith. But that’s not how a pluralistic society works. The First Amendment’s religion clauses delicately balance the individual’s right of worship against the rights of others to be unaffected by personal exercise. You can’t take one part of that compromise, and abandon the other. No matter where you come down on the questions presented by numbers #8 and 9, they’re not questions of freedom to worship — and, as to #10, federal authorities can freely enforce content-neutral rules of expression within federal buildings. Deal with it.

To add the expected note of hypocrisy, general practice, from Norman Rockwell (above, right) to today, shows that “freedom of worship” has always been treated as a more artful description of, not a lesser version of, free expression of religion. It’s clear that today’s right-wing Christian community only sees in Obama what they want to see. They want to see a vast conspiracy to destroy their religion, and so, even when Obama attempts to speak their language, that’s what they see.

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16 comments

  1. Aside from the legal aspects, it’s also a far too restrictive definition of ‘worship’ in the general sense. I think most religious Jews would say that observing the Kashrut or any of the other divine laws is just as much an act of worship as going to the synagogue.

    1. Exactly! I think if you asked them on any given day what ‘worshipping’ meant, they’d not hesitate to define it as more than prayer. Buuuut…

  2. Steve Jeffers · ·

    It’s nonsense. For a start, they seem to be quoting Obama and Hillary *abroad* explaining how other countries should behave like America. And a quick Google search only has the theorists saying Obama said ‘freedom to worship’ in his Cairo speech. Here’s the prepared text (not checked the delivered one)

    http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/06/04/obama.anewbeginning.pdf

    And he doesn’t say ‘freedom to worship’ he says
    ‘freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion’, which is the exact opposite of what the conspiracy theorists say he’s saying.

    This is Obama (and presumably Hillary) going to Muslim countries and lecturing *them* by pointing to the American example. What are they actually talking about? The persecution of Christians. Obama is trying to *protect* (arguably extend) the rights of Christians in other countries, not trying to restrict them in the US. Again, the exact opposite of an anti-Christian agenda.

    http://www.christianpost.com/article/20090604/obama-upholds-religious-freedom-in-muslim-speech/index.html

    As ever, the problem with religious faith is that if it was subject to facts and rationality and evidence and, y’know, reality, then it wouldn’t be religious faith. This is another dog whistle smear, another piece of political propaganda spread through the religious network. And, if we’re talking about rights and the Constitution and the founders and America, then any place of worship that’s spreading this word is in clear breach of the law and should have its charitable status and any federal funding recinded.

    1. …any place of worship that’s spreading this word is in clear breach of the law and should have its charitable status and any federal funding recinded.

      Which particular law is that?

      1. Steve Jeffers · ·

        Churches are eligible for 501(c)(3) tax exemption, one requirement of which is:

        ‘no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation (except as otherwise provided in section (h)), and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distribution of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.’

      2. Well, I’m obviously not an expert (ACG?), but I suspect that 1) “substantial part” is a rather important concept in this context, and 2) “propaganda” and “influenc[ing] legislation” have slightly more precise definitions than “stuff Steve Jeffers doesn’t like to hear.”

        Just a guess.

        1. Steve Jeffers · ·

          Well, OK – an example. The Mormon Church donated 70% of the anti-Prop 8 campaign funds.

          http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/10/27/BAP113OIRD.DTL&tsp=1

          http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/10/27/BAP113OIRD.DTL&tsp=1

          http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/15/us/politics/15marriage.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all&oref=slogin

          ‘Substantial’? Yes, obviously. It’s not about whether I like it or not, and this isn’t about some pastor addressing a congregation of ten people and saying he doesn’t like abortion.

          Churches are politicized now. Read Daniel Kuo’s book Tempting Faith for an insider confessing to how it’s done and how they get around the law.

          The tax code specifically says they can’t do that and get a tax exemption. It’s tax-free political campaigning.

        2. Steve Jeffers · ·

          Oh, and I note that you shifted the goalposts there from ‘there’s no such law’ to ‘that can’t possibly mean what it says’.

          The problem with ‘substantial’ is that it isn’t precise. I think it’s there because if some priest says something once, it’s no big deal. ‘I think the President should spend more money building schools and less on bombs’ is a political statement, but a very innocuous one. You’d be worried for the priest who didn’t think that. Various legal authorities seem to think ‘substantial’ is assessed on a case by case basis.

          That is not what’s happening in America now. Very large churches are dodging millions in tax, and spending millions to directly influence elections. Yeah, I think they should pay those taxes and that money could go to something better – the President could build more schools with the cash, for example.

        3. Oh, and I note that you shifted the goalposts there from ‘there’s no such law’ to ‘that can’t possibly mean what it says’.

          Thank you for your unfounded attack on my character, but I actually just asked for clarification on which particular law you were talking about; I do not, after all, have the entire US Code memorized.

          I think it’s there because if some priest says something once, it’s no big deal.

          I think it’s there to ensure that obviously political organizations cannot receive tax benefits, while at the same time avoiding a conflict with the First Amendment rights of other organizations.

          Again, just a guess.

          Yeah, I think they should pay those taxes and that money could go to something better

          That’s nice. Fortunately, just like everyone else, you have many different opportunities available to, if I may, influence the legislation.

          1. Steve Jeffers · ·

            ‘Fortunately, just like everyone else, you have many different opportunities available to, if I may, influence the legislation.’

            But that’s the point, isn’t it? I have the right, but not the ability, to spend millions successfully swinging a referendum in a State I don’t actually live in. The Mormon church, in that example, *doesn’t* have that right – or at least it does, but not if it wants to be called a charity – but it no one stops them from doing it.

            If you don’t see the issue here, I’m not quite sure how to make you see it. There is something they are not allowed to do, they do it anyway.

            I’m sorry if what I said sounded like an attack on your character. The ‘stuff you don’t like to hear’ sounded like an attack on mine.

          2. If you don’t see the issue here, I’m not quite sure how to make you see it. There is something they are not allowed to do, they do it anyway.

            I see a problem with the LDS, sure. But now we’ve already moved from “spreading this word” to “spending an awful lot of money on a referendum”, which I suspect is somewhat more in line with the meaning of the 501(c)(3) restrictions.

            In any case, it’s great to see that we’re now talking about specific institutions doing specific things, rather than blanket generalizations about “churches” or “places of worship”, because the latter usually tends to lose touch with reality very quickly.

            The ’stuff you don’t like to hear’ sounded like an attack on mine.

            I’m sorry, that wasn’t the intention.

  3. Bah! Religion doesn’t need any help from the government; God’s on their side!

  4. James F · ·

    Oh, for crying out loud, somebody call the waaahmbulance.

  5. Steve Jeffers · ·

    ‘I’m sorry, that wasn’t the intention.’

    Thanks for that, and sorry for being so grumpy before.

    I don’t think the 501 restriction is all that confusing, and it’s more concrete than the church-state divide in general. The rule’s there to either prevent a political organization from pretending to be a religious one to save on the tax bill, or to stop a church from campaigning.

    ‘Substantial’ is vague, and I suspect that it allows a little discretion – if one Catholic priest says something, that’s not grounds for removing the charitable status of the entire Catholic church, say; also religions are going to make statements that tend towards social justice and against wars. These could be highly politically-charged, without necessarily being partisan.

    Where do you draw the line, though? You’d expect the Catholics to speak against abortion and the Mormons to be anti-gay … but they spend millions lobbying, advertising and publicizing. And Republicans play up to it – the Kuo book I mentioned refers to a pamphlet disseminated in every state during the 2000 election that purported to be a neutral guide to the candidates – but which only focused on Republican wedge issues like abortion.

    1. Where do you draw the line, though?

      I actually don’t think that’s even a line that is for private citizens to draw in the first place. To channel Marshall for a moment, it is emphatically the province of the judiciary to interpret the law – and it’s just as much the province of the executive (in this case the IRS) to decide how to carry it out in practice. So in this case, “substantial” means whatever the courts and the IRS say it means.

      Of course, that’s not to say that one can’t form an opinion, and if we (or you; I’m not a US citizen) disagree on how this is done, the obvious recourse is to get the legislature to change the law. And sure, that can be a challenge when a lot of money is involved on one or more sides, but that’s why things like political parties and action committees and such exist.

      (BTW, a small point: It probably wouldn’t be possible to change the status of the entire US Catholic Church, since the different dioceses are incorporated seperately, just like they’re also considered separate entities under canon law.)

  6. you are a fucked up stupid and a fool to worship the devil you will die a FUCKED UP MAN

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