NASHVILLE, Tennessee (NRB) – A panel of experts at the NRB 2020 Christian Media Convention addressed how the First Amendment should be applied to divergent and sometimes clashing religious faiths, concluding religious liberty must extend to all religions to avoid infringement upon a single one.
The panel session on February 26, moderated by syndicated radio host and NRB Chairman of the Board Janet Parshall, featured Steven Waldman, author of Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody and Ongoing Fight for Religious Liberty; Asma Uddin, author, fellow at the Aspen Institute, and former attorney with the Becket Fund; and Craig Parshall, NRB’s General Counsel and veteran First Amendment attorney.
Janet Parshall suggested an alternative title for the discussion, “The Blessings and Burdens of the First Amendment,” because the benefits often overshadow an uncomfortable but necessary tradeoff.
Uddin, an attorney who specializes in U.S. and international religious freedom, said religion serves a vital function in the public square, but it’s essential that there be a diversity of religions.
“The Town of Greece Supreme Court case specifically said it was constitutional to open legislative sessions with prayer, but that that space had to be given to a variety of different views including groups such as Wiccans – people we may think of as nontheistic,” Uddin said. “So I think that religion is important, but it’s absolutely essential to protect religion in terms of its most diverse forms.”
Waldman, a journalist and cofounder of Report for America, said the Founding Fathers disagreed with each other on religious liberty questions, and “you had this wonderful, kind of perfect laboratory experiment where four of the people who were instrumental in birthing religious freedom then got to be president and actually try to implement what religious freedom means.”
Presidents Washington and Adams issued prayer proclamations from the White House, so “they obviously had no problem with the idea of a government official invoking God or having a clear message of religious purpose,” Waldman said, “and Jefferson and Madison were furious, and they opposed what Adams and Washington did with their prayer proclamations.”
Countering that, Craig Parshall noted the historical context behind what the Founders actually did when they were in office: as President, James Madison ended up issuing his own White House proclamation for prayer. Parshall also cited an 1813 letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson where Adams attributed the cohesive spirit behind American independence not only to the principles of “liberty,” but also to the shared allegiance that the colonists held to “the general principles of Christianity.” That historical foundation, he stressed, should not be forgotten.
When it comes to public acknowledgments of God, Congress “actually kind of gets it right,” Waldman continued, because they open their sessions with prayer but approach it pluralistically. “They don’t have a single denomination, and … I think that’s a pretty good model for the rest of the country.”
The Christians of the 18th Century were “very self-confident,” Waldman said, and they basically said, “Christ’s message will do just fine if we just let it be free instead of letting the government try to help.”
NRB Chairman Janet Parshall brought up a recent executive order signed by President Trump clarifying guidance on religious expression in public schools. Uddin said it was a good idea, but “one thing that has to be noted is that that guidance was actually first put together after extensive work by the Clinton administration, and it was updated by the George W. Bush administration, and what President Trump was simply doing was saying, ‘Look, we’re going to enforce this guidance.’
“So I think a lot of people sort of think that Trump came up with it, but in fact President Bill Clinton was actually the one who originally put together the guidance that was reissued by President Trump, which is an important point because it kind of shows the importance of religion to both parties,” Uddin said.
Waldman said over the past 30 years a fair amount of consensus has developed that allows a lot of room for religion in public schools, though teachers and school administrators often aren’t clear on what is acceptable.
He mentioned a study where a Ph.D. student gave a series of hypotheticals to high school teachers on different church and state issues, “and they got them wrong about 70 percent of the time,” Waldman said.
“Sometimes they got it wrong being too restrictive. Sometimes they got it wrong being not restrictive enough,” he said. “But mostly they were ill-informed about what it was. On the Department of Education level there is a surprising amount of consensus … an awful lot of room for religion in public schools now.”
Craig Parshall noted that a sticking point in the subject of religious free speech is often the concept of “hate speech.” He said that “we don’t like hate speech, but we know it can’t be made illegal because the consequences of that will come back to haunt us, every one of us, in terms of our positions. It has been used by Silicon Valley to shut down Christian viewpoints on Google, Facebook, Twitter – rhetoric that is nowhere near what I would consider hate speech.”
The Supreme Court, Parshall said, “has made it pretty clear that hate speech, regrettably, is going to have to be protected because the price of free speech is that you’re going to hear some of this grotesque stuff you don’t agree with at all.”
Janet Parshall said part of the difficulty in applying religious freedom is “you have your sincerely-held religious beliefs, but because of the First Amendment, under the paradigm of the country in which we live, it gives everybody a right to set up their booth in the marketplace of ideas.”
“You don’t have to agree with that, but when you deny religious liberty to one group, do you not set up a paradigm to then start denying religious liberties to other groups? You do so at your own peril,” she said.
Craig Parshall added that, while the courts have tried to avoid weighing the value or worth of any particular faith, on the other hand, “They’ve … have had to in the past, determine what is a religion and what isn’t a religion,” he said, for purposes of applying the First Amendment.
Neo-Nazi groups or white supremacist groups “that hide under the banner of Christianity are really in effect political organizations rather than religious organizations,” Parshall said. “Likewise, jihadists that use Islam … should be treated as dangerous political groups without religious protection.
“Courts will have to make those distinctions,” he said. “They will not be easy, but I think if we don’t make that distinction we’ve made religion such an all-encompassing category that the atheist will say, ‘I have a religion unto myself because I worship myself.’”
By Erin Roach