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In these fractious times, where is King Solomon when we need him?

How would Solomon have resolved the modern dilemma presented by religious liberty and individual rights?

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.

Elizabeth NagelElizabeth Nagel

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 Long hours in her garden after our harsh winter has led her to some provocative thinking.


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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 07/16/2014 - 06:38 am.

    Remember the sequester

    Don’t be so sure the Republicans won’t just go ahead and let the baby be cut in half.

    Remember the sequester!

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/16/2014 - 02:43 pm.

    We can no longer agree on what common good is. America no longer shares common morality, traditions or goals.

    Californians will have the opportunity to split their state into 6 new states which will allow them to live, and govern among people that do share those things.

    I can see a future like that for the US.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 07/16/2014 - 04:08 pm.

      Maybe in your dreams

      they only people that seem to want to leave the United States behind are mouth breathers that inhabit comment sections at sites like Breitbart and Redstate. Draper’s plan has no chance in hell of becoming reality…just another 1% clown who wants to amass more wealth and power around himself. And since when has America ever been about sharing the same things? This country has always been a melting pot of different people and cultures. You people talk out of both sides of your mouths…you claim to love the American experiment, but have done everything you can in the last thirty years to destroy it. You’ve become anti-science , anti-innovation, anti-immigrant and seem desperate for isolationism and creating a Christian theocracy.

  3. Submitted by Bruce Young on 07/17/2014 - 01:40 am.

    Missing the point again!

    “Perhaps the better question is respect for these differences” is the point of this article. Why do you feel the need to insult and disrespect anyone who doesn’t completely agree with your position? You represent the intolerance that this country experiences.

    Most people who hold positions contrary to yours just want to be left alone to make decisions according to their conscience. The Hobby Lobby folks aren’t saying nobody should be able to use abortifacients – including anyone who works for them. They just don’t want to be forced to pay for them against their deeply held beliefs.

    Your position is disrespectful and attempts to force everybody into a one-size, my way or the highway solution. That is the epitome of interance.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 07/17/2014 - 12:43 pm.

      Ahh, yes…

      the trusty “how dare you be intolerant of my intolerance” card….always a delight. If anyone is attempting a my way or the highway solution, it’s a company attempting to hide behind their “deeply held beliefs.” The same company that according to their owners wants to eventually mandate a 4 year bible based school curriculum. I wonder if the Hobby Lobby owners were Muslim what the response would be from 99% of their defenders? I’d make a large wager that the tenor of comments would change from defending their religious freedom to outrage and a fear of imposing Sharia Law in the United States. They just want to be left alone?….how about the women that work for them that just want to be left alone to make their own reproductive health care decisions? How about the fact that Hobby Lobby’s 401 invests in companies that actually make your so called ” abortifacients?” or do their “deeply held beliefs” take a break when there’s money to be made?
      If you find my position disrespectful, so be it…I couldn’t give a rip. You people have no problem dishing it out, you’ll yell in women’s faces at Planned Parenthood clinics, scream about some imaginary war on Christmas, when Christmas is the only thing anyone hears about from November 1st through December, fill town halls trying to stop mosques from being built, disparage homosexuals and equate their lifestyles with all sorts of deviance, rail on the unemployed, the underemployed and have a treated our president with some of the most vile disrespect Ive ever witnessed a sitting president endure in my life time…and you think I represent intolerance?…no, Bruce…I’m just turning the mirror directly back at you. If that makes you uncomfortable, I’m thrilled.

  4. Submitted by rudy martinka on 07/17/2014 - 09:03 am.

    King Solomon

    Okay. Since we only have two choices. Politicians, or the Constitution, I choose the latter to determine “Common Good”

    Regards and good will blogging

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/17/2014 - 09:35 am.

    “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..”

    You couldn’t be more misguided. Why do I need to respect things I don’t? More important, why is my neighbors sexual preferences or birth control something I need to be informed of at all?

    The left lays out a plateful of issues, behaviors and consequences out in the street and demands all show respect in the name of “the common good”. How about a little respect for those that feel differently?

    I’ll just stand back now and make room for the rain of ad hominum headed my way. Or, more probably this comment is headed for the censors Tolerance and Diversity can.

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