Among the more difficult questions about religion -- a question about which people of good faith can and do have differences of opinion -- is what to do when a religion's rules conflict with the laws of the country in which its adherents are located.
We have seen this kind of dilemma come up in, for instance, the case of whether certain Native Americans are allowed to use the otherwise-banned drug peyote as part of their ceremonial life. In a 1990 decision, the U.S. Supreme court ruled that an individual's religious beliefs do not excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that government is free to regulate.
A case that may be more complicated currently is live in Indiana. There the question is whether a religious organization can discriminate in its hiring based on its theology even if that discrimination would seem to violate federal, state or local law.
As this story from The Economist explains, the case involves "two male teachers at Catholic high schools in Indianapolis, who ran into trouble with the local archbishop after it emerged that they were married to one another. In one case, Cathedral High School laid off Joshua Payne-Elliott, who had taught there for 13 years. His husband Layton Payne-Elliott fared better. His employer, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, decided to keep him on, but at a cost. The school no longer has the archbishop’s blessing to call itself a certified Catholic institution; instead, it will style itself an independent Catholic school."
Joshua Payne-Elliott then sued the archdiocese, "citing the distress he had suffered as a result of interference with his teaching contract. He also filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that enforces equality laws."
The Economist asks the right question here: "(T)he outcome will pose in even sharper relief one of the dilemmas faced by organised Christianity in modern times. Should it aim to cast a broad wash of influence over society as a whole, which may mean compromising with some secular norms? Or does it retreat into a self-policing minority subculture, observing much stricter norms than society as a whole: the kind of outfit that society can tolerate only if it remains fairly small?"
And yet even there one can and should find limits to what religion allows. For instance, can anyone imagine a religious community in the U.S. having the freedom to own slaves today because it continues to believe what many churches, especially in the South, believed before the Civil War, which is that the Bible not only doesn't forbid slavery but in places seems to countenance the abhorrent practice?
Or what if a religion believed -- as some have across history -- that child sacrifice is a meet and proper thing to do on occasion. Would American jurisprudence allow that? Of course not.
Obviously those are two extreme examples. But they get to the point of the issue here, which is that religion and civil law must find ways to coexist without doing serious damage to either one. In this time of high-strung rhetoric about every conceivable issue, I suspect that rational conversation about all of this will be next to impossible. But it's what we need to have.
So let's calm down and find ways to work through these complicated issues. And if one of the ways that proves helpful is that religion sees the light and abandons what society thinks is reprehensible behavior, so much the better, just as it may also prove helpful at times if the government would simply butt out. See? I find myself on both sides of that. And maybe you do, too. Which ought to lead us toward a little humility.
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GO BACK TO, UH, TEXAS?
What does it feel like when an American citizen is told to go back to wherever he or she came from (which is what President Trump told four members of Congress recently)? Here's an answer from a Sikh man who grew up in Texas. Simran Jeet Singh writes this: "I can’t recall how many times I’ve been told to go back to where I came from. What I do know is that the frequency of these calls has increased in recent years, in part because of what scholars are calling the Trump Effect: the emboldening of people to act and speak on their racist feelings." By the way, my next Flatland column, scheduled to post on July 28, is about a new Sikh gurdwara, or house of worship, being built in suburban Kansas City. If you don't know much about Sikhism, you can learn a little then.