There is an old story about the wisdom of King Solomon. Two women came to him, both claiming to be a baby’s mother, and asked Solomon to settle their dispute. He called for a sword, saying that if the baby was cut in half, each woman could satisfy her claim. Immediately, the woman, who was the baby’s real mother, relinquished her claim — not wanting her son to die.
We need such wisdom today. If you ask people what is “religious freedom” in places you frequent, such as coffee shops or grocery stores, the answers you get are likely to have two parts. Religious freedom is being able to practice one’s religion without fear of discrimination or persecution. And religious freedom means not having someone else’s religion imposed upon them. Sounds simple enough …
Yet, what is meant by religious freedom goes back to the founding of this country — and before. The Puritans came here to have the freedom to worship as they believed. However, they treated others who were not of their persuasion with as much harshness as they experienced in England.
This issue periodically surfaces over teaching of evolution in schools, the place of prayer in public schools, and school boards that scrutinize textbooks and other books that might contain ideas counter to parents’ religious beliefs. Banned books have ranged from the beloved Harry Potter series to Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.” And book banning is not limited to this country, but occurs across the world and over the centuries.
Violations of freedom
The latest uproar has been about limits to health insurance coverage. The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling over the rights of Hobby Lobby to exclude certain contraceptives from insurance coverage unleashed a flood of articles and opinions. At issue are companies’ religious premises having precedence over the rights of individuals.
And now rules to prohibit workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians are at stake. In early July, 15 faith leaders sent a letter to President Obama. They wanted to include an exclusion in Obama’s pending executive order prohibiting workplace discrimination against LGBT persons. The Washington Post printed their letter, in which they argued that his order “not come at the expense of faith communities whose religious identity and beliefs motivate them to serve those in need.”
What about the freedom from not having others impose their religious beliefs on those who differ? Is discrimination against gays and lesbians justifiable because of beliefs that being gay is immoral? Or is exclusion of certain health benefits acceptable due to a company or organization’s religious beliefs? These two examples sound like violations of individual religious freedom.
Likewise, what about limits on the freedom to read whatever books one desires? Or allow parents to determine expression of ideas, when their interpretation of religious freedom includes exposure of their children to a narrow or wide range of opinions — through textbooks, library books, or classroom discussion.
A pervasive issue
The answers to these questions are not simple, which is why issues of religious freedom are so pervasive. Here we need the wisdom of Solomon! King Solomon challenged the women by suggesting an unacceptable solution rather than an “either-or” solution — thus forcing a resolution respecting everyone’s right to life. Might a Solomon suggest a similar challenge today — one that can lead us out of irresolvable “my rights vs. your rights” questions?
At first glance, Solomon’s challenge could appear counter to treasured First Amendment rights by raising the question: “Is there really such a thing as religious freedom?” Instead, is it a simple-minded and lofty ideal that views the world though rose-colored glasses?
The concept of common good, which has largely fallen by the wayside in today’s individualistic culture, is an alternative approach. Whether we agree or not with various interpretations relating to religious freedom is not really the issue. It is the common good – not the imposition of anyone’s beliefs on us or by us – that can provide better guiding principles.
Restoring common good
When we live together in diverse communities, differences over religious beliefs and practices are inevitable. Perhaps the better question is respect for these differences without relinquishing our own cherished beliefs. Rather than getting snared in irresolvable dilemmas that pit the rights of organizations over individual rights (or vice versa).
The concept of common good is about respect for our neighbors’ sexual identity, our neighbors’ use or non-use of contraceptives or the number of children they bear, books available on library shelves or ideas children encounter in their education, or even the way our neighbors dress in accordance with their religious customs.
From such a perspective, we create practical ways to honor and respond to our differences. Thank you, King Solomon, for wisdom to challenge our thinking.
Elizabeth Nagel is a local writer and photographer. She teaches writing at Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts. She writes a monthly blog and contributes at essaysbyecnagel.blogspot.com. Long hours in her garden after our harsh winter has led her to some provocative thinking.
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