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Editor's note: This article was originally published as a series in AANEWS, a free email newsletter published several times a week by American Atheists. For information on subscribing to AANEWS, visit American Atheists -- AANEWS.

Alphabet Soup:
STATE-CHURCH SEPARATION AND THE LEGISLATIVE BATTLE FOR RELIGIOUS “SPECIAL RIGHTS”


by Conrad Goeringer


RFRA, RFPA, RFA... What are the differences? On Capitol Hill and in state legislatures throughout the country, bills are being introduced to achieve "special rights" for religious groups and believers -- and erode our First Amendment right of state-church separation in the process. But what do these individual measure say? And how are they different from one another? Here's a handy guide to understanding the "alphabet soup" of religion-linked legislation...

Part I

In California, members of the State Assembly recently passed a Religious Freedom Protection Act, modeled closely on a federal law known as RFRA, or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down RFRA, but left the door open to the passage of "mini RFRA's" like the RFPA. Meanwhile, in Washington, another proposal known as the Religious Freedom Amendment is due for a possible vote in Congress as early as March. RFA is the successor to the former Religious Equality Amendment, or REA. There are also calls to examine attitudes toward religious exercise in other countries, and set certain standards for those nations if they are to qualify for U.S. foreign aid or military assistance...

Confused? It's easy to lose track of these different proposals and distinguish one from the other. They have important ramifications, though, for the future of state-church separation in America and the civil rights of atheists. All of this legislation likewise creates "special rights" for religious groups and believers, but uses different means to achieve this. Complicating the picture is the fact that in some cases legislation is backed by a wide spectrum of different groups; at other times, proposals are "pet projects" for organizations like the Christian Coalition. Let's try to make sense of these different measures...

The RELIGIOUS EQUALITY AMENDMENT dates back to 1994 when in the midterm elections, Republicans gained control of both sides of Capitol Hill -- House and Senate -- for the first time in four decades. Led by their new Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, the GOP unveiled its "Contract With America" which centered mostly on a number of economic reforms related to the budget and taxation.

Religious right groups, especially the Christian Coalition, had worked hard to give the GOP its electoral victory; and while Republicans focused on their "Contract," Christian Coalition presented its "Contract With the American Family" that emphasized social and cultural issues -- school prayer, vouchers, a ban on abortions, restrictions on pornography and other materials, and "family friendly" legislation. At the top of the agenda was "A constitutional amendment to protect the religious liberties of Americans in public places," a measure which was identified as the Religious Equality Amendment.

Since the early 1960s when U.S. Supreme Court cases such as MURRAY v. CURLETT or ENGEL v. VITALE had helped to abolish coercive prayer and Bible verse recitation in public schools, fundamentalist and evangelical groups had focused their efforts on a variety of legislative remedies, including proposals for "voluntary prayer," state-composed, non-denominational prayers, even a disingenuous "moment of silence." Courts struck down these ruses, however, and in LEMON v. KURTZMAN, devised a test in evaluating whether or not government actions in respect to religious belief were violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The "Lemon Test" stated that government could engage in no action the purpose of which was not primarily secular, favored one religion over another, or promoted religious belief, or take any action which resulted in the "excessive entanglement" between church and state. This proved to be a bulwark against most of the proposals introduced in state legislatures and in Washington over the years which called for school prayer or other forms of religion-in-government.

These Supreme Court rulings, along with certain legislative measures,were cited by some religious groups as evidence that government had become "actively hostile" to the exercise of faith. The Christian Coalition "Contract" declared, "With each passing year, people of faith grow increasingly distressed by the hostility of public institutions toward religious expression." Critics charged, however that this was not "hostility," but the constitutionally-required practice of government neutrality.

Only a constitutional amendment could achieve the goals of Christian Coalition and its allies -- prayer in schools, teaching religion, and greater involvement between government and clerical organizations. Mr. Gingrich charged Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill) with the task of crafting an appropriate bill, and groups like the Southern Baptist Convention, Christian Legal Society and Christian Coalition set to work. The reality of framing such a proposal, however, quickly became apparent; soon there were competing versions of the Religious Equality Amendment. The REAs became mired on Capitol Hill, and for some organizations this was evidence that Republicans had taken a more pragmatic political course in emphasizing tax cuts and a balanced budget, while neglecting more important "culture war" issues such as a ban on abortion (specifically, in passing the so-called Human Life Amendment) and enacting the REA.

After a series of revisions, and mixed fortunes in the House Judiciary Committee, a version of the old REA emerged which was known as the Religious Freedom Amendment. Also known as the Istook Amendment -- it was proposed by Rep. Ernest Istook, (R-Okla.) -- it borrowed important elements from the old REA, and struck a compromise in its wording in the hope that the various factions would finally support one version. It read:

"To secure the people's rights to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Neither the United States nor any State shall establish any official religion, but the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, or traditions on public property, including schools shall not be infringed."

Critics charged that in terms of free exercise of religion, RFA did nothing that the First Amendment did not guarantee. What RFA did attempt to do, however, was to eviscerate key U.S. Supreme Court decisions which limited the role of religion in government.

Worse yet, additions have been made to the RFA. In October, 1997 the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution agreed to a modification of the RFA (HJR 78) which was inserted on to the end of the proposal. It reads:

"Neither the United States nor any State shall require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, prescribe school prayers, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion."

For separationists, this addendum would permit government funding of "faith-based" groups and programs. Churches already receive tax breaks and other perks, of course; and religious groups have moved in the lucrative field of administering social-welfare programs. As a result, much "religious charity" often is funded by public monies. There are restrictions, though, on how religious groups may use this money; public funds cannot at present be used to promote religious beliefs or proselytizing. The Religious Freedom Amendment now threatens even those restrictions. American Atheists has charged that RFA will not only "gut" the Establishment Clause, but, in effect, compel millions of atheists and others to subsidize religious outreaches. AA National Media Coordinator Ron Barrier has described this and related proposals as, "A raiding party on the U.S. Treasury led by the Christian Coalition." In fact, the government-sponsored RFA web site operating out of Rep. Istook's office (at taxpayer expense) is blunt in its support of this aspect of the proposed amendment. "Faith-based charities have a better record of success than most in helping people recover from poverty, drug or alcohol abuse, or other problems." Critics question the claim, and argue that even if true, this would not justify the legality or morality of public funding of "faith based" outreaches.
Who Supports RFA? And Where Is It Going?

Most of the backing for RFA is coming from religious conservatives. Organizations which have signed on to support the Religious Freedom Amendment include Christian Coalition, Catholic Alliance, American Family Association, Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Free Congress Foundation, American Conference of Jews and Blacks, American Muslim Council, Jewish Union, National Baptist Convention USA, Southern Baptist Convention, Traditional Values Coalition, Salvation Army, Christian Voice, Concerned Women for America, General Council of the Assemblies of God, Wall Builders, Youth for Christ, U.S. Family Network, and International Pentecostal Church of Christ.

This segment of the American religious community represents specific religious groups which see an important "big brother" role for government in permitting (and even subsidizing) them to advance a religious agenda. Some feel that they require this as part of another "Great Awakening" to prepare America, and the rest of the world, for the Second Coming of Christ. Others are more pragmatic; they wish to subordinate public, secular institutions -- especially public schools -- to a "religion friendly" social and cultural agenda.

The Religious Freedom Amendment, like its predecessors, has never cleared the House Judiciary Committee for a full vote on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. It faces a rough road if it is to become law. As an amendment to the Constitution, it must be approved by a two-thirds margin in each house of the Congress. Legislatures of three-fourths of the states (38) must then ratify the proposed Amendment. At the state level, only a majority is required. RFA supporters realize that in the present political climate, chances are slim that this measure will pass muster on Capitol Hill, let alone be approved by lawmakers in over three-dozen states. So, what role does RFA play now?

The Religious Freedom Amendment may be sent from the House Judiciary Committee on to the floor of Congress as early as March, 1998 -- next month. Groups like the Christian Coalition are anxious to get lawmakers on the record by forcing a vote. That way, the "yea" or "nay" of each representative or senator can be included in disingenuous "voters guides" as a vote in favor of (or against) "religious liberty" or "allowing our children to pray in school." Critics have charged that the Coalition guides over-simplyify issues, don't present the various aspects of an issue, and frequently are distributed immediately before elections, thus preventing those candidates who receive a political black eye from being able to respond.

Along with proposals to ban or restrict abortion and "culture war" legislation such as the gratuitous Defense of Marriage Act (against recognition of same sex union), the Religious Freedom Amendment remains a centerpiece in the religious right social agenda for America. It is not the only threat to our civil liberties, though, or the separation of state and church. Mainstream and religious liberal groups have their own proposals to bully government into being more "religion friendly," an effort which, strangely, has resulted in a sort of faith-based popular front with their more conservative counterparts. What is it that brings such diverse groups as the National Council of Churches, Christian Legal Society, Roman Catholic Church, humanists, Scietnologists, Muslims, new agers and the Traditional Values Coalition together in common cause? We next examine the convoluted history of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a measure struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court only to live on in various "stealth" proposals being introduced in state legislatures throughout the country.

Part II

(We continue with our discussion of various legislative proposals which provide religious believers and groups with "special rights." Our last installment included a discussion of the Religious Freedom Amendment. Part Two examines the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the various "mini-RFRAs" now being promoted by churches and advocacy groups throughout the nation.)

American Atheists continues to be the only national organization actively speaking out against the “special rights” agenda embodied in RFRA, and the various state versions it is now being promoted under, such as “Religious Freedom Protection Act.”

While religious right organizations like Christian Coalition have supported the Religious Freedom Amendment, more mainstream and even liberal churches have undertaken their own efforts to achieve "special rights" and standing for organized religion. Their main effort has consisted of support for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a measure enacted in 1993 but overturned last year by the U.S. Supreme Court in the BOERNE v. FLORES case. Since then, using technicalities in the case, RFRA advocates have taken their battle from Capitol Hill to the various states, where "mini-RFRAs" are now winding their way through legislatures. The array of different religious interest groups backing RFRA and its offspring is astonishing; it represents a wide segment of the American religious community, and even some groups which have identified themselves closely in the past with the cause of civil liberties and state-church separation. RFRA ignited a debate in the ranks of separationist, however, and many groups which have been stalwart defenders of the Establishment Clause appear to have jumped ship on this important measure. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is a cause which has united Christian Coalition, the National Council of Churches, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Humanist and new age advocacy groups, and even the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

American Atheists continues to be the only national organization actively speaking out against the "special rights" agenda embodied in RFRA, and the various state versions it is now being promoted under, such as "Religious Freedom Protection Act."

While the religious right supports RFRA, mainstream churches and other groups have not displayed comparable enthusiasm for the Religious Freedom Amendment. Both RFRA (and its state-level incarnations) and RFA both advance religious belief and favor religion; but when RFRA was struck down in BOERNE, the Coalition which had supported the law failed to translate that enthusiasm into any sort of alliance for RFA and the Christian Coalition. Understanding why this did not happen requires examining some history, and how different parts of the American religious establishment perceive their relationship with government.

"Social Gospel" vs. Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism

In terms of composition, most religious Americans are Roman Catholic, or use a label such as "fundamentalist" or "evangelical" to describe their Protestant affiliation. 10% of Americans describe themselves as atheists, nonbelievers, agnostics or skeptics of some kind in respect to religion. Other categories include beliefs such as Mormonism, new age, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim (this being one of the fastest growing segments in the religious marketplace). Most Americans, though, fall into the category of being "unchurched," a pejorative label to describe those who do not regularly head for church, mosque or temple, or -- when they do so on holidays -- may attend for social or family reasons. Indeed, there has never been a time in American history when the majority of the population have been regular and devoted church service attendees.

In terms of relationship with government, modern attitudes embraced by the religious right and mainstream have their antecedents in American history. Many religious groups fought the "disestablishment" process which began with the American Revolution; prior to the uprising, many colonies had an "established' or official religious sect often supported through taxation. Membership in this church was often a requirement for the exercise of certain rights, and the process of disestablishment prompted howls of protest.

American culture underwent periodic frenzies of religiosity such as the Great Awakening, but by the end of the 19th century, technology and the findings of science were rapidly chipping away at the authority and infallibility of religious doctrines. Fundamentalism came to describe the conservative reaction among Protestants in the U.S.; and it emphasized many of the tenets considered essential to Christianity such as the inerrancy of Biblical accounts, physical resurrection of Christ, Rapture and the Second Coming. Fundamentalists continued to embrace the Bible as the infallible and revealed word of god, and in the early twentieth century the movement was articulated in a twelve volume published series, aptly titled "The Fundamentals." Bible institutes were established in order to transmit Fundamentalist doctrines, and as a result, this religious ideology prospered in rural areas throughout the 1920's. The so-called "Monkey Trial" in 1925 contrasted the Fundamentalist doctrine, including Biblical inerrancy and belief in Creation, with the latest findings in evolutionary science.

Another related religious tendency was Evangelicalism. Like fundamentalists, evangelicals embrace a strict orthodoxy regarding the doctrines and authority of the Bible. The differences between the two, however, continue to be debated; but it seems that Evangelicalism emphasizes the "experience" of religious conversion, something evidence in the historical roots of the movement in groups such as the Hussites, Waldenses and Reformation sects. Evangelicalism also claims antecedents in the 1725 Great Awakening and religious revivalist movements.

Evangelicals generally ignored political entanglement throughout the early to mid-1900s as an official policy. There were exceptions, of course, but most evangelical (and even fundamentalist) groups saw politics as "of this world," sinful and part of secular society. Evangelicals emphasized "saving souls" over precinct organizing.

Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, however, both share a common spiritual and sectarian foe -- religious modernism and specifically the Social Gospel. Modernism describes the current in early twentieth century religious belief that rejected the more traditional and orthodox aspects of the Bible, and searched for a different meaning in its texts. Closely related to modern was the liberal Social Gospel movement which sought to apply certain Christian teachings to a variety of social problems related to industrialization. Founders of this tendency were Washington Gladden (1836-1918), an American Congregationalist minister, and theologian Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). The Social Gospel called for activism and involvement in social and political affairs; but fundamentalists and evangelicals, distrustful of those more worldly entanglements, emphasized religious conversion as the way of creating a "New Jerusalem" in anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ, or Parousia.

Evangelicals and Fundamentalists became politically energized beginning in the 1960s and into the 1970s by the "first wave" of religious right activism -- groups like the Third Century movement and the Moral Majority. This marked a major reorientation for many evangelicals, many of whom still remained uncomfortable with the more authoritarian and draconian political program of leaders such as Jerry Falwell. With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, however, fundamentalists and evangelicals had already flexed their political muscle, and by the 1990s, new groups like Christian Coalition -- the "second wave" of religious right activism -- were declaring that their ideologies and churches had finally "arrived" in the power center of American social activism.

From a macro-perspective, then, religious conservatives have come to emphasize a distinct social and political program: using government to ban abortion, censor "immoral" materials, allow certain religious activities in schools and other public institutions, and create a "family friendly" (i.e. heterosexual) economic environment. It is important to remember that there exist splits and fault-lines even within the segment we identify as "religious right," however. While various churches and interest groups may agree on a common stance in respect to gay rights or abortion, the can disagree on more arcane issues such as free trade or certain rights for others.

Evangelicals and Fundamentalists have often avoided the Protestant "mainstream," although they seem to have greater numbers than many of the established, mainline religious sects. The latter is best represented by the National Council of Churches. Liberal denominations are somewhat skeptical of the Biblical inerrancy claims of their fundamentalist counterparts, and they share a certain caution about the more blatant attempts to commingle government and religious. For instance, the religious liberals are generally wary of the Religious Freedom Amendment.

It should be noted in that in some quarters of the American fundamentalist and evangelical community, there is similar hesitance regarding efforts to breech the "wall of separation" between government and religion. Baptist groups, for instance, have a record of speaking out against some prayer-in- government proposals. Historically, this dates back to a fear that other religious groups -- specifically, the Roman Catholic Church -- would violate the First Amendment for their own, sectarian ends. The "Bible Riots" in 19th century America were rooted in this mutual hostility and suspicion which divided Protestants and Roman Catholics. In fact, one of the leading state- church separation groups in existence today was originally known as "Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State." Fear of Roman Catholic hegemony in the political sphere has served as the basis for some efforts made by specific Protestant groups to defend Jefferson's "wall of separation" between government and organized religion.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act

RFRA was legislation that attracted support from across the religious spectrum. Its origins date to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision, OREGON EMPLOYMENT DIVISION v. SMITH. The issue involved the right of a Native American church to use an hallucinogenic plant, peyote, in its religious ritual. The State of Oregon had claimed that the ban on peyote and similar substances was a generally applicable rule which applied to everyone. Religious groups argued that if government passed any law that placed "substantial burden" on religious practice, it had to demonstrate a compelling reason, and had to achieve that end by the least restrictive means.

The high court ruled, however, that not even religious belief could constitute an exemption from a neutral law that applied to everyone, and may have had the result of placing a restriction on a religious practice. A group known as the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion was promptly formed, and set to work crafting legislation that would circumvent the decision in SMITH. The effort paid off in 1993 when Congress overwhelmingly passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). President Clinton quickly signed the measure.

RFRA was significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the range of support it managed to attract. Religious and civic groups flocked to the cause of RFRA -- Baptists, Roman Catholics, Jews, Hindus, Humanists, Ethical Culturalists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Muslims, Presbyterians, new age sects, Scientologists, Unitarians and religious right groups such as the Traditional Values Coalition. Also signing on to the RFRA agenda were the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and People for the American Way.

The act required that government demonstrate the same compelling interest in any action which placed a substantial "burden" on religious groups or practice -- a condition said to exist prior to the decision in SMITH. But the underpinnings in RFRA were to be tested when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal from the Roman Catholic Church in the case of BOERNE v. FLORES.

The case involved an effort by to demolish most of a 76-year-old church structure in BOERNE, Texas in order to build a larger facility. The City refused to grant a permit, saying that the church building fell under the purview of historical ordinances; the Archdiocese then filed suit, arguing that these restrictions violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and constituted excessive burden on a religious organization.

The Justices disagreed in a controversial 6-3 decision handed down in June, 1997 which found RFRA to be unconstitutional. Most of the opinion centered on whether or not Congress had the authority to enact such legislation, and may have exceeded its authority in interpreting the constitution. Justice John Paul Stevens, however, was more direct, and enunciated his opinion that RFRA was clearly discriminatory, favored religious groups and belief, and was a violation of state-church separation. He wrote:
"If the historic landmark on a hill in BOERNE, Texas happened to be a museum or an art gallery owned by an atheist, it would not be eligible for an exemption from the city ordinance that forbid an enlargement of the structure. Because the landmark is owned by the Catholic Church, it is claimed that RFRA gives its owner a federal statutory entitlement to an exemption from a generally applicable, neutral civil law. Whether the Church would actually prevail under the statute or not, the statute has provided the Church with a legal weapon that no atheist or agnostic can obtain. The government preference for religion, as opposed to irreligion, is forbidden by the First Amendment..."

"One, Two, Many RFRAs..."

Stung by the decision in BOERNE which struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Coalition behind RFRA began to examine its options. One included a full constitutional amendment -- a lengthy procedure considered to be a "last resort."

Groups such as the Christian Coalition which had been promoting the Religious Freedom Amendment hoped that they could woo the liberal and mainstream churches to their cause. The latter considered RFA to be unnecessary, or too extreme; and some questioned the political viability of working with the Christian Coalition, already tainted with the scandal of partisan political involvement. Instead, the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion decided to take advantage of a possible loophole in BOERNE, and begin promoting RFRA-like laws at the state level. These laws may also be unconstitutional, but litigating them in the court systems of individual states will prove to be a daunting task.

Several "mini-RFRAs" have been enacted or introduced in state legislatures. In late January, 1998, the California Assembly passed the Religious Freedom Protection Act which is an RFRA clone. Like RFRA, it requires that government "should not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification." A study by the Legislative Counsel defends the new measure, suggesting in one document that the State of California has the power and should "protect the free exercise of religion" by actions which are "more expansive than the First Amendment to the Constitution."

RFRA and the "mini-RFRAs" pose a substantial threat to state-church separation, although they are more subtle than the blatant power grab demonstrated in the Christian Coalition's Religious Freedom Amendment. RFRA essentially fosters a system of "dual justice," and exempts religious groups and practices from the civil laws which apply to everyone else -- private individuals, businesses and even civic institutions. It encourages "special rights" for believers, and in the process of doing so, discriminates against millions of Americans who profess no religious beliefs.

Part III

Religious groups are employing a number of strategies to achieve "special rights" for churches and believers. While proposals such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Religious Freedom Amendment deal with the social agenda at home, these groups also want American foreign policy to reflect a "religion friendly" direction.

One of the most controversial measures being promoted by religious organizations in America today is FFRPA, or the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act. Unlike other proposals such as the Religious Freedom Amendment, FFRPA is not aimed at Americans, but instead is designed to influence the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in hopes of coercing other governments into allowing more religious tolerance and activity in their respective nations. Under this act, an Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring would be established to "provide for the imposition of sanctions against countries engaged in a pattern of religious persecution, and for other purposes."

The FFRPA was introduced as House Resolution 2431 into the 105 Congress. Many supporters are identified with Christian Coalition and allied groups, and have endorsed other religion-in-government proposals including the Religious Freedom Amendment. Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma is one of the sponsors of the bill; he is a frequent speaker at Coalition events such as its annual "Road to Victory Conference" held in Washington, D.C. Another supporter, Rep. Aderholt, was behind a non-binding resolution that passed unanimously in Congress advocating that Americans should display and follow the Ten Commandments; that gesture was seen as support for Alabama Judge Roy Moore, who has sparked national controversy for his policy of displaying the Decalogue in his Etowah County courtroom, and beginning sessions of his court with a Baptist invocation.

"Religious Freedom" -- Not Civil Liberties

Supporters of FFRPA declare that they are concerned about the "persecution" of Christians (and, in some cases other religious minorities) throughout the world. In section (B)(3) of the Act, it is argued that "Persecution of religious believers, particularly Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestant Christians, in Communist countries such as Cuba, Laos, the People's Republic of China, North Korea, and Vietnam, persists and in some cases is increasing."

The following section cites "many Islamic countries and regions thereof, (where) governments persecute non-Muslims and religious converts from Islam using means such as 'blasphemy' and 'apostasy' laws, and militant movements to seek to corrupt a historically tolerant Islamic faith and culture through the persecution of Baha'is, Christians and other religious minorities." Other sections of FFRPA cite the Government of the Sudan, and the People's Republic of China for its policies concerning Tibet and the Dalai Lama.

In the Senate, comparable legislation -- S.722 -- has been introduced by Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania (March 21, 2020).

Critics make a number of arguments regarding the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act:
  • "Religious persecution" is part of a wider problem in many countries, many of which are often willing supporters of U.S. foreign policy and beneficiaries of American largesse -- namely, lack of basic human rights. Many of the societies which are mentioned in the FFRPA lack secular liberties, not just religious rights for certain groups. The organizations and individuals behind FFRPA have a questionable, even shoddy record in speaking out against these governments when nonreligious liberties such as basic freedom of press or political disagreement occurs. Using "religious freedom" as a litmus test for American foreign policy does not address the wider problem of promoting and advancing human rights for all people and institutions -- not just clerical groups and believers.

  • FFRPA fails to take into account basic cultural realities, whatever their faults. To what extent (if any) should the United States, through its foreign policy, be not just the world's policeman, but its nanny and disciplinarian as well? Officials in the U.S. Department of State remain opposed to the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act, which threatens to complicate American responses in a constantly changing geopolitical environment.

    This does not make the policies in these respective countries "right" or moral by western and Enlightenment standards. But the act could create far more problems than it addresses. For instance, the economic embargo against Cuba -- a decades-old policy -- has had mixed results, and similar tactics elsewhere (as in Iraq) might be questioned as well. Could FFRPA and its "Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring" prompt similar sanctions against other countries -- all based on their attitudes about religion?

  • FFRPA is based on a faulty constitutional assumption. In Section 2, "Findings," the framers of this proposed legislation declare under "The Congress makes the following findings:" that:
    "1) Governments have a primary responsibility to promote, encourage and protect respect for the fundamental and internally recognized right to freedom of religion..."

    Nowhere does our Constitution say this. Article 1 of our Bill of Rights declares the wider right of free expression and free exercise of religion; but the second portion of this Article likewise says that the government shall not make any law respecting an "establishment" of religion.

    This portion, the "Establishment Clause," has been interpreted by courts in numerous decisions to mean that government must adopt a position of benign neutrality in respect to the affairs of religion and religious groups. It is not the mission of the United States to promote religion, either at home or abroad. Many of the Founders of the Republican were deists whose notion of a "god" differed from that of the Judeo-Christian religion; and they were skeptical of "establishing" any one religious group as the state religion. In addition, many were likewise skeptical of "foreign entanglements." The wisdom of this policy in our contemporary world is certainly debatable, but tampering in the internal affairs of other nations is never a matter to be taken lightly, or legitimized by hasty, even provocative legislation.

  • Many of the offending countries lack civil institutions based on the Western Enlightenment model, including separation of church and state. It is disturbing to note that many (thought not all) of the supporters of the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act are wary of state-church separation when practiced in America, or believe that it is not, or should not be, a legal principle.

  • The Act is highly selective in quoting international documents and covenants in support of its thesis concerning "religious rights." Instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for instance, address a wide variety of secular liberties, including rights for women and minorities. Indeed, one might argue that religious persecution is part of a larger problem -- authoritarian behavior by governments, some of which are based on religious totalitarianism.

  • The most effective remedy for ending "religious persecution" may be something which many supporters of FFRPA despise, namely, vigorous secular movements and institutions which may question and even reject religious values. In some Islamic nations, for instance, the gradual erosion of Moslem fundamentalism and authoritarianism is the result of numerous factors including communications technology, a "youth rebellion," cultural contact with the west, and a movements advocating more rights for women or political/social minorities. Do we really want to see Muslim patriarchy replaced with, say, the Promise Keepers vision of how society ought to be run?
  • The Freedom From religious Persecution Act does not address the question of civil rights and freedoms for atheists and other nonbelievers. Will this proposed "monitoring" office investigate the fact that in some European nations, religious groups receive direct and indirect government subsidies which everyone is required to contribute to? Who would monitor the "persecution" when it is done in the name of religious belief?

Why FFRPA?

Part of the momentum for enacting laws such as Freedom From Religious Persecution Act stems from a wider agenda -- to have the state give religious groups and individuals special rights or consideration. That is why FFRPA focuses on only a very narrow activity, namely, religious exercise. It says nothing about countries which deny basic human rights in other areas, or to whole groups such as women. In fact, dictatorial regimes would pass muster with FFRPA boosters, so long as they permitted free and open exercise for all religious groups.

But there is a more subtle reason for why at least some organizations -- many on the religious right -- support this type of legislation. This has to do with something known as the "10-40 Window," a phrase used to describe that geographical part of the world which represents most of the predominantly non-Christian cultures -- Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, animist, and particularly Moslem.

Originally, many of these nations were thrown open to Christian proselytizing during the era of classical economic imperialism (an often-misunderstood and misused term) when European nations established colonies and outposts in these societies. The British empire remains a classic example of this process. In some cases like the Middle East, incursions from Europe go back centuries, as with the Crusades.

The end of World War I saw these European empires begin to crumble, a process that accelerated with the end of World War II and the mass movement toward independence. Western religious groups, mostly Christian, no longer enjoyed the easy access in many nations which they formerly did. Years of resentment against the west often led to the expulsion of missionary organizations, a phenomenon identified with indigenous independence movements.

These movements did not always institute civic values which Americans and Europeans often want for themselves. Social strife often resulted from a collision of ethnic and religious interests, as when India gained independence from the British. Moslems and Hindus rioted, each faction wanting its own social order; that problem has never been fully resolved. In other cases, such as Arab nations, independence brought some of the trappings of Western technology and wealth, but resulted in religious xenophobia. Even in the former Soviet Union, the new Russian government is reverting to a pre- revolution historical paradigm -- the alliance with the Orthodox Church. There, the government is "establishing" Orthodoxy as the official religion, and is taking steps to limit foreign missionary activity by Christians, Scientologists, new age sects and other groups, all of which it perceives as culturally and politically corrosive.

Many evangelical and fundamentalist religious groups see these societies (most of which are in the 10/40 Window) as "unconquered territory for Christ," a task made all the more urgent by the arrival of the upcoming millennium and, say some, the Second Coming. As arcane and foolish as this seems to many of us, it is something which is taken quite seriously by hundreds of thousands, even millions of motivated evangelicals in groups such as United Prayer Track, March for Jesus, King's Kids, Christ for the City, Spiritual Warfare Network, International Fellowship of Intercessors, Prayer Thrust, Muslim Prayer Focus and others. For this religious subculture, even those who embrace other religions and deities (Muslims, Hindus) need to be "converted." Enlisting the U.S. government to facilitate this effort on behalf of "world evangelism" motivates some of the supporters of Freedom From Religious Persecution Act.

FFRPA -- A Bad Answer For Only Part Of The Problem?

Some mainstream religious groups and civil libertarians also endorse FFRPA, thought for vastly different reasons. The persecution of anyone, anywhere for their beliefs is wrong, even if those beliefs happen to be in error. But is FFRPA the answer? Does it deal with the wider aspects of social intolerance? And does it address the rampant problem of Christian intolerances, especially in the United States where groups promoting FFRPA are busy trying to curtail or abolish other civil liberties -- freedom of expression, abortion rights, freedom from religion?

Persecution of those who happen to believe in a certain religious creed is only a portion of a wider problem. Full civil liberties for everyone -- not just churches, missionaries, or religious believers and proselytizers -- is the best way to achieve human rights, in the full sense of that term. Doing this often requires separating church and state, limiting the powers of both authoritarian government and meddlesome clerical institutions be they Christian, Moslem, Hindu, or identified with some other sect. FFRPA does none of this.


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