Culture Friday – Religious liberty or religious power?

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Friday the 17th of July, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown.

The 2020 Supreme Court term drew to an end last week. And Christians are looking back on a series of surprising and, sometimes, deeply disappointing decisions like Bostock v. Clayton County. That ruling made sexual preference and gender identity protected classes under the Civil Rights Act. Many churches, religious organizations, and individual believers are wondering what these landmark cases will mean for religious liberty going forward.

Attorney and writer David French has argued, this concern is often overblown. He says Americans enjoy more religious freedom now than we ever have. 

Here’s French explaining why he feels Bostock won’t mean much to most people:

DAVID FRENCH: If you’re somebody who’s say, working for, say, an insurance company in Alabama, the odds are that your company had already adopted this prohibition as its own policy. So for an awful lot of people they won’t notice anything really different.

BASHAM: But other Christian intellectuals, like Ryan Anderson at the Heritage Foundation, don’t share French’s upbeat outlook. Anderson contends that part of the reason Christians have lost so much ground on so many fundamental issues is because we feel bolstered by winning narrowly tailored legal cases even while losing much bigger cultural arguments.

Anderson said on Twitter that French is “myopic” to view what the court did this term as balancing “gay rights” against “religious liberty.”

I’ll quote him here: “The redefinition of marriage is not the court protecting ‘gay rights’—unless you think the reality of marriage violates ‘rights.’ And much more than ‘religious liberty’ is at stake in Bostock’s embrace of gender ideology.” 

And with that we now welcome John Stonestreet to the conversation. He’s president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. 

John, good morning.


BASHAM: Now, French, a very smart, thoughtful guy, has some complicated views on this subject, John. And we won’t be able to fully vet them here. 

But part of his argument is that he draws a distinction between religious liberty and religious cultural and political power. Particularly the power he says white evangelicals have enjoyed. Now, I’ll be honest, when I talk to the folks who are feeling angst, it doesn’t seem like loss of privilege or power is what’s driving their worries.  

For example, my sister and her husband own a girls volleyball club. They are very concerned the Bostock decision could require them to violate their religious convictions. And they don’t see much protection for them in recent decisions.

Do you think she’s right?

STONESTREET: Well, I think perhaps. I don’t know her particular situation, but I think what we have from the court is a further delineation that what happens in religious institutions is protected, and what doesn’t happen in religious institutions is not protected. And I think that’s a real net loss for religious liberty, which is best understood not as the right to believe and act in the privacy of your own head, your own home, and your own house of worship, but actually in ordering your public life—whether it’s as an employer, whether it’s as a voter, or anything else. 

And I think one of Ryan’s fundamental points, and if you ask me what team I’m on, I’m on Team Anderson on this one 100 percent because, I mean, look, it’s never a good thing for a society when something that is not true is just further entrenched into law. And that’s what Gorsuch’s opinion in Bostock actually did. Now, he didn’t do it the way that I think some LGBT advocates would have wanted, in which he would have equated the category of sex with sexual orientation and gender identity, but he basically set this bar which said if you will do anything in which it’s ok for a woman but not ok for a man or vice versa, it’s committing sexual discrimination. In other words, to discriminate against gays or lesbians or transgender in their behavior at your place of work is to necessarily discriminate against their sex. 

That’s just a fundamental wrong. Seeing categories of sexual orientation and gender identity as a fundamental category of identity itself is a wrong. And we don’t want our laws to reflect that which is not true. And that’s a fundamental wrong direction and I don’t think it’s something necessarily to celebrate. 

I mean, look, I am glad for the wins that we got. But, look, there’s also this reality–and I think it’s important—the Little Sisters of the Poor have been to the Supreme Court three times. Why would the state of Pennsylvania think that after the court already decided against the federal government on the same issue, that they could turn around and force them to buy contraceptives. Or why would the state of Montana, after we got an overwhelming decision in the Trinity Lutheran case, think it’s OK to discriminate against religious schools?

The fact that there have been so many cases like this that should have been slam dunks, that should have been obvious, and that should have never gone to the Supreme Court in the first place says an awful lot about the culture in which we live.

BROWN: OK, John, there was a legal case back in 2001, called Good News Club v. Milford Central School. Because of the ruling in that case, for the last two years, I’ve gotten to be the Bible teacher for the Good News Club at Starling Elementary. In fact, my church leads several of these clubs in our county. It blows my mind when I think about being able to share Jesus, in a public school with these 1st—5th graders. And some of them come to know the Lord through Good News Club. 

But here’s the thing, part of the reason the Good News Club prevailed in that case is because it was able to appeal to legislation that bolstered a culture of faith in the public square, specifically the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

When we consider these latest SCOTUS opinions what seems to be happening is in the absence of congressional action the Supreme Court has taken upon itself the responsibility to be the ultimate authority on how competing interests will be proven in our country. Do you agree with that assessment and if so, how should we be responding as Christians?

STONESTREET: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s—it’s obviously true that the court is doing this, and of course the question is is it because Justice Kennedy set them on this path of having to arbitrate between various forms of animus or is it because there is a vacuum of local governments protecting the rights of citizens. And I think the answer is probably yes. It’s probably both of those things. And so I just think that’s going to leave all kinds of messes that are going to have to be adjudicated going forward. So, I think that’s going to be an inevitability.

I think the same thing is true, by the way, in the June Medical Services case, which is the Louisiana abortion law. Not necessarily a religious freedom in the same sense, but you do have the court making a nationwide decision on a local abortion restriction. Abortion restrictions are typically up to the state. And now the court basically saying, well, if it didn’t fly in Texas, it’s not going to fly here. It doesn’t matter if Texas and Louisiana are the same situation on the ground or not. Well, that seems to me to be kind of an almost nationalized way of resisting any sort of restrictions on abortion. So, all of those now restrictions that we figured out, like parental notification and mandated literature and medical information and parental notification laws and bans after particular weeks and so on, all of that is going to have to be adjudicated now as well. So, I certainly think the court has secured its future employment. There’s no question there’s going to be tons of things that are going to have to be adjudicated based on the decisions that were given in this term.

BASHAM: You know, lately John it feels like every week we need to hit some topic related to free speech. I don’t want to be redundant, but I don’t think we can let you go without asking about Bari Weiss resigning from The New York Times and the stunning letter she wrote.

And Andrew Sullivan, another center-left writer, announced he’s leaving New York Magazine for what sound like pretty similar reasons.

Do you feel like this, combined with the Harper’s Letter from last week, might bring about some sort of cultural correction?

STONSTREET: That is the question that I wish I knew the answer to. I don’t know. But it’s fascinating. I mean, there’s that wonderful meme of Michael Jackson in the Thriller video sitting there watching the movie shoving popcorn in his face. I kind of feel like I’m that meme looking at this because certainly the fact that it happened, these three things happened in such a hurry and it was—Weiss’ letter was just so scathing. 

It’s really amazing and, you know, to look at what the letter that was published in Harper’s said, I mean, this is really non-controversial stuff, right? I mean, except for the kind of obligatory slam of Trump in the middle of it. But this is really non-controversial stuff. This is stuff that everyone would have agreed upon yesterday and now, I mean, the very fact that so many of them showed up with J.K. Rowling, she was the one, I think, that probably made this an intolerable letter at the end of the day.

So, anyway, look, I’m not sure, but I’ll be watching, just like you.

BROWN: Well, John Stonestreet is President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. John, thanks for being here.

STONESTREET: Thanks so much.

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File) In this July 8, 2020, file photo the Supreme Court is shown in Washington. 

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