The U.S. Supreme Court’s Decisions in Recent Decades With Respect to Religious Exercise and Establishment May Lead to the “Culture Baby” Being Thrown Out With the “Religious Bathwater”
By Ken K. Gourdin
I don’t think the U.S. Supreme Court, in its recent jurisprudence (that is, in decisions extending back at least a couple decades) has drawn an effective line between what constitutes an impermissible government establishment of religion, on the one hand, and what constitutes an impermissible abridgment of free religious exercise, on the other hand.
Indeed, all the majority in Obergefell v. Hodges, the recent decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide, had to say to avoid needlessly muddying the exercise-versus-establishment waters further, is, “Nothing in today’s decision disturbs our previous precedents with respect to free exercise,” but it didn’t do that. Rather, it magnanimously granted the religiously devout the more narrow privileges of continuing to “believe” and to “teach” as they wish with respect to traditional marriage.
At best, further confusion regarding religious rights seems to be in the offing. At worst, further erosion of the rights of those who champion traditional marriage seems to be on the horizon. And those who favor a strict, clean, bright-line division between religion and public life seriously underestimate religion’s historical impact on nearly every facet of American culture—from art, to history, to music, to ethics, to literature and beyond.
I recently made that point in a thread at Mormon Dialogue and Discussion. Commenting on the inclusion of the Provo-Tabernacle-cum-Provo-City-Center-Temple on patches worn by the city’s uniformed police and fire personnel, I wrote:
I think those who favor completely extinguishing any hint of religious expression from public life will, if their vision is realized, eventually also come to the realization (many to their dismay, if not to their horror, their antipathy and/or apathy toward religion notwithstanding) that the “cultural baby” has been thrown out with the “religious bathwater.” Even those for whom the tabernacle-cum-temple has no religious significance should be broadminded enough to recognize that, if nothing else, it has enormous cultural significance. Failing at least to meet the religiously devout at that point may well lead to society becoming not only religiously impoverished, but culturally impoverished, as well.
By analogy, I’m not a Muslim. The religio-cultural artifacts being destroyed by ISIS [the so-called Islamic “State” in Israel and Syria] in much of the Muslim world hold no particular religious significance for me. But, inevitably, their destruction will lead to cultural impoverishment, as well, and that is of grave concern to me, my status as an “infidel”/outsider notwithstanding.