Thursday, January 12, 2012

David Gibson Adds Commentary at Commonweal about Supreme Court Religious Liberty Decision

After I posted last evening about yesterday's Supreme Court decision recognizing the right of religious bodies to a "ministerial exception" in hiring and firing of those who represent the body in an official capacity, I saw that David Gibson had also added commentary about the decision at the Commonweal blog.  David Gibson's take, which strikes me as eminently sane: 

The ruling in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC is clearly the right one (and it seems to leave some definitions and distinctions to a future ruling, which would be appropriate, I think). Conservatives in particular are high-fiving what they consider a great victory over impending tyranny. 
I’m not sure why the celebrations. As far as I could tell, the case was mainly an effort to allow religious groups to act against their religious teachings but still enjoy the protections of religious freedom. And that’s a hill to die on? I’m sure many will be won to Christ because churches “like to fire people,” as someone once said.

As I noted last evening, the principle of religious liberty certainly seems to demand that religious groups have the right to determine who represents their group in an official capacity, without intrusion from the government as they make that determination.  But the principle of religious liberty is not an unalloyed good.

No principle of liberty or freedom is an unalloyed or unambiguous good--though in the rhetoric of the American cultural and political right wing, the terms "freedom" and "liberty" have taken on a shibbolethlike quality which seems to imply that freedom and liberty automatically trump all other values and all other social considerations.  (Except, of course, when the freedom and liberty under consideration is, say, the liberty of a same-sex couple to contract a civil marriage, or the freedom of a woman to earn the same amount as a man earns for the same work if the two have the same qualifications, or the liberty of an Islamic community to construct a mosque, etc.)

If one looks at the various goods under consideration in this particular discussion with even a modicum of  moral sensitivity, one immediately recognizes that, weighing against the good of a religious body's right to determine who represents it officially without government intrusion, there's also the good of avoiding discrimination.  Period.  No matter who is under consideration, and whether the person under consideration is an official representative of the religious body or some other employee of the religious group.  Or anyone at all, for that matter.  There's a positive good to avoiding and working against discrimination.  

And that holds a fortiori for religious bodies.  What those now high-fiiving yesterday's "big win" for religious groups seem not to be recognizing, to their discredit, is that, weighing against the positive good or religious liberty, there's also a positive good of representing the core ideals that a religious body teaches and proclaims by avoiding discrimination and affirming the worth of all human beings.  The delight many folks are taking in this particular decision appears to employ a short-sighted and rather immature moral optic which suggests that those viewing the decision as a "big win" aren't seeing a part of the picture that's necessary for one to see if one has anything approaching a well-developed conscience.

And this is that a religious body--say, the Catholic church--is not necessarily and unambiguously a "big winner," as Michael Sean Winters proposes at National Catholic Reporter or as Bishop William Lori, the new point man of the U.S. Catholic bishops for issues of religious liberty, has also suggested, when it trumpets its judicial victory in a court that has just underscored its right to discriminate!

Who's really the big winner here?  And in what precise way is the religious liberty decision a "big win" for groups like the Catholic church?  Do we really serve the common good and build a more humane world when we turn "liberty" into a shibboleth that prevents us from seeing a wider range of goods that must be served in a society seeking to respect the rights of everyone

There's certainly the right and freedom to determine who represents one's religion in a public way.  But there's also the obligation to treat those on the margins with decency and to treat all fellow human beings as children of God deserving the same range of human rights that you yourself enjoy.

Which victory are those celebrating yesterday's "big win" celebrating, I wonder?  And how does it admirably proclaim the core teachings and core values of the Catholic church to dance a victory jig when we've just scored a "big win" in a case that permits us to discriminate without fetters against the disabled?  Or against others who are excluded from the social mainstream?

A well-formed conscience has no choice except to ask such questions.

(And if you want to see whom we're really hopping into bed with when we join the U.S. Catholic bishops'  victory dance about yesterday's "big win," have a look at Jillian Rayfield's article today at TPM surveying precisely who in the American religious and political arena is mounting the big-guns arguments about religious liberty.  And why they're doing this.  And whom they seek to target.)

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