Legal Precedent, Religious Freedom, and the Hobby Lobby Court Decision

By Anya Arndt

supreme courtReligious freedom in the United States will never look the same again; while the majority of Supreme Court justices believe that their ruling on the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case will not be taken to extremes, history tells us otherwise. In fact, it was unexpected consequences of the ruling on the Citizens United case that partially allowed the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling to turn out as it did. When Citizens United is boiled down to its fundamental principle that corporations have the same rights as individuals, it translates into the Supreme Court’s ruling on the side of Hobby Lobby as a corporation with religious beliefs. As I will explain, the Hobby Lobby ruling has provided fertile battle ground for those insisting that the right to discriminate is covered under religious freedom. Since corporations are now protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, it will not be long before we see advocates of “freedom to discriminate” working to make it legal for businesses across the country to discriminate against customers and deprive employees of rights, as long as those can be founded in “sincerely held religious belief.”

The Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case can be simplified to a single question: whether or not Hobby Lobby, a corporation owned by individuals with particular religious beliefs, qualified for an exemption under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). RFRA, codified in 1993, exists to prevent the establishment of laws that substantially burden the free exercise of religion (as protected in the First Amendment).[1] In efforts to protect the exercise of religious freedom, the Supreme Court has often had to assign the nebulous standard of “sincerely held religious belief” to make rulings.[2] While the beliefs of the Green family concerning abortion in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby are not scientifically accurate, they are, arguably, sincerely held; had the Supreme Court decided that the Green family’s beliefs were not sincere, they could have rejected the case. But what is sincerely held religious belief in the context of the American justice system? Courts often look to things like longevity of belief and consistent adherence to the tenets of that belief to determine sincerity; in agreeing to hear the Hobby Lobby case, it was understood that the Supreme Court found the Green family’s beliefs to be sincere.[3] Since sincerity was already assumed, what the Supreme Court had to decide was whether or not complying with the legal mandate of the Affordable Care Act would impose a substantial burden on the owners of the business. If a law poses such a burden, the constitutionality of the law hangs on whether or not there is a compelling state interest to keep the law in place as is. This is all in accordance with what is known as the “Sherbert Test,” developed following the 1963 Supreme Court case of Sherbert v. Verner, which was reinstated, after being curtailed in the 80s, by RFRA.[4]

10775-hobby lobby for cms.800w.tnTo state the case simply, Hobby Lobby claimed that the fine it would incur, under the Affordable Care Act, for following its religious convictions to not provide all forms of birth control was substantial. Ultimately, the majority of the Supreme Court justices agreed, deciding that the government could not justify such an imposition on the faith of the corporation/owners of the corporation. Thus, the ruling determined that the law did indeed pose a substantial burden, and that the government should provide another option to for-profit organizations with sincerely held religious beliefs. Corporations are now protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

This ruling is cause for much concern; beyond the obvious implications for women’s health care, the ruling also sets a precedent. Because the legal system in the United States relies so heavily on precedent, the ruling in one case can affect the outcome of another seemingly unrelated case, and this is why the Hobby Lobby decision is so disturbing. For example, the majority opinion in Citizens United, a case about campaign finance, insisted that the ruling was only upholding the First Amendment, but, as mentioned above, the implications of that ruling meant that the Hobby Lobby case was heard and corporations are now able to hold religious beliefs equal to (and arguably more important than) those of citizens and corporation employees. The same is true of the recent Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted key aspects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The majority opinion in this case suggested that aspects of section four of the act were no longer necessary to protect voters from discrimination, and were therefore unconstitutional. Despite this opinion, within hours of the ruling, officials in states that were previously bound by regulations of the Voting Rights Act began pledging to enforce suppressive voter ID laws that would not have been cleared under the 1965 act. Like in the Citizens United and Shelby County cases, the majority opinion in the Hobby Lobby case rebukes the possibility that this ruling will set yet another dangerous precedent making room for discrimination, but history has shown that such an opinion is far too optimistic. In the dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg decries the majority opinion with this exact concern: “The Court does not even begin to explain how one might go about ascertaining the religious scruples of a corporation where shares are sold to the public. No need to speculate on that, the Court says, for ‘it seems unlikely’ that large corporation ‘will often assert [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] RFRA claims.’”[5]

The possibility this precedent poses is a particular threat because there have been so many religious liberty cases recently in regards to providing services to people (and particularly couples) identifying as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans* (LGBT). Fortunately, many of these “freedom to discriminate” cases have already been shut down on the state level, but the Supreme Court’s decision could certainly invigorate those who have not yet brought their cases to court. Additionally, on the employment level, as President Obama appears to be growing closer to signing an executive order barring discrimination against people who are LGBT by companies doing government work, more and more organizations are demanding that a faith exemption be included in the order. The implications of the Hobby Lobby ruling can spell disaster for these matters in terms of LGBT equality. Because of the Hobby Lobby ruling, groups advocating for a religious exemption to LGBT inclusion practices have more ground on which to base their argument. On the other side, LGBT advocacy groups have become so critical of religious exemptions in anti-discrimination laws since the Supreme Court’s decision, that many have even withdrawn support from the current iteration of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, currently being held up in the House of Representatives. “As currently drafted, ENDA contains a provision that allows any religious organization that qualifies to discriminate on the basis of religion — e.g., a Catholic group is permitted to only hire Catholic employees — to also continue discriminating against LGBT workers.”[6] Recognizing the danger of the precedent set by the Hobby Lobby ruling, many pro-equality groups are worried about giving any more ground to those who insist upon their religious freedom to discriminate.

Ruth Bader GinsburgThe reality of the Hobby Lobby case ruling is, as many political bloggers have pointed out, that corporations owned by people with religious convictions have more rights and freedoms than the individual employees of those corporations. The implications of this ruling could be numerous. For example: if corporation owners can deny their employees the right to health care on religious grounds, what is to prevent them from refusing services to particular customers on religious grounds? Or, if closely-held for profit companies can have religious beliefs, can publicly-traded companies hold religious beliefs? Furthermore, if corporations are protected under the first amendment, are they protected under the second amendment? Finally, there is the question of whose faith is covered, as Justice Ginsburg points out in the dissenting opinion: “Would the exemption…extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations[?]…Not much help there for the lower courts bound by [this] decision.”[7] The list of questions goes on, and in time we will see the extent to which this landmark ruling will affect the daily lives of U.S. citizens. For now, however, it is safe to say that religious freedom, as we knew it, is gone in the United States.

References:

[1] Lutz, Zak. “Limits of Religious Freedom.” May 27,2013. Harvard Political Review. http://harvardpolitics.com/covers/religion-and-politics/limits-of-religious-freedom/

[2] Collins, Richard. “Religious Freedom and Obamacare.” Lecture, from UCCS, Colorado Springs, April 10, 2014.

[3] ACLU. “Know Your Rights: Freedom of Religion.” November 2012. https://www.aclu.org/files/assets/know_your_rights_–__religion_november_2012_0.pdf.

[4] Collins, Richard. Religious “Freedom and Obamacare.” Lecture, from UCCS, Colorado Springs, April 10, 2014.

[5] Allon, Janet. “10 Blistering Highlights from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Hobby Lobby Dissent.” July 1, 2014. Alternet. http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/10-blistering-highlights-justice-ruth-bader-ginsburgs-hobby-lobby-dissent.

[6] Ford, Zack. “Following Hobby Lobby, Some LGBT Groups Abandon Workplace Nondiscrimination Bill.” July 8, 2014. ThinkProgress. http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2014/07/08/3457967/lgbt-groups-drop-enda/.

[7] Liebelson, Dana. “The 8 best lines from Ginsburg’s dissent on the Hobby Lobby contraception decision.” June 30, 2014. Mother Jones. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/06/best-lines-hobby-lobby-decision.

Madison and Jefferson v. Scalia and Thomas on Church-State Separation

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by Ken Burrows

The May 5th Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway concluded that the practice by the Greece, NY, town board of opening its meetings with predominantly Christian prayer does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. This despite the fact the practice causes a certain religious imposition on those citizens attending the town board meetings who see themselves as excluded or at least marginalized by being subjected to official governmental prayer, sectarian in nature, that effectively endorses a faith they do not themselves subscribe to.

Anthony_Kennedy_official_SCOTUS_portrait_cropJustice Anthony Kennedy in writing the Greece opinion insisted it “faithfully reflects the understanding of the Founding Fathers,” which one would assume refers to the Founders’ views on the role of religion vis-à-vis government—the key issue at stake in Greece. But is that claim of fidelity to the Founders as patently true as Kennedy would have us believe?

Today’s two Supreme Court justices most willing to accept church-state entanglement are Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, both of whom concurred in the Greece opinion. They can consistently be found to have virtually no problem with church-state entanglements that tilt in favor of religion. The two Founders most opposed to such entanglements were James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who incidentally were also the two chief drafters of the Constitution; the former is in fact often referred to as the Father of the Constitution.

If we compare the writings of Madison and Jefferson against the writings and statements of Scalia and Thomas, we find, at a minimum, that today’s justices fall short of the clarity Madison and Jefferson brought to their advocacy for church-state separation and indeed show a willingness to compromise on the very principles these Founders advocated.

It’s ironic because Scalia and Thomas lay claim to also being the two strongest “originalists” on today’s Supreme Court, with Scalia insisting historical inquiry is mandatory to understand the original meaning of the Constitution and what its drafters intended. It’s a reasonable enough position to hold. After all, given the roles Madison and Jefferson played in framing the Constitution, these Founders’ church-state views are, dare we say it, supremely relevant. Whether Scalia and Thomas are faithful to those views will be the subject of this writing

Madison

Madison’s views on the proper relationship between government and religion were most enduringly spelled out in his 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, a 15-point opposition to Patrick Henry’s proposal to use state funds in Virginia to pay teachers of the Christian religion. Here we find Madison making a number of statements of resounding clarity. For example:

“The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man.”

“In matters of religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.”

James Madison“Instead of holding forth an Asylum to the persecuted, it [Patrick Henry’s bill] is itself a signal of persecution. It degrades from the equal ranks of Citizens all those whose opinions in Religion do not bend to those of the Legislative authority… the bill implies either that the civil magistrate is a competent judge of religious truths, or that he may employ religion as an engine of civil policy. The first is an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of rulers of all ages and throughout the world; the second an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.”

But his Remonstrance was by no means Madison’s only commentary on the subject. In a letter to Edward Livingston in 1822 he opened by saying, “I observe with particular pleasure the view you have taken of the immunity of Religion from civil jurisdiction… This has always been a favorite principle with me.  … in some parts of our Country there remains a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Govt and Religion neither can be duly supported. Such indeed is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded against. … Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion and Govt will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

In a post-presidency Detached Memorandum Madison pointed out inconsistencies he saw between government practice and the spirit of church-state separation embodied in the First Amendment. (For one thing, Madison opposed having government monies pay for military or congressional chaplains, calling it unconstitutional.) He refers to attempts that were made by some delegates in Virginia to insert the words “Jesus Christ” after “our Lord” in the preamble to Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom. [Note: In these 18th and 19th century times, terms such as “Lord” referred primarily to God in a generic sense and not to any individual such as Christ.] Madison said such an insertion would have implied “a restriction of the liberty defined in the Bill to those professing his religion only,” and applying the name Jesus in such a context would profane it “by making it a topic of legal discussion, & particularly by making his religion the means of abridging the natural and equal rights of all men.”

Madison’s Memorandum went on to criticize the issuance of religious proclamations by government, saying that although they might be recommendations only, “they imply a religious agency… [and] seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.” A related problem he saw was that the practice tends to narrow the recommendation to the standard of the predominant sect “and naturally terminates in a conformity to the creed of the majority.” He concluded forcefully that “members of a Govt can in no sense be regarded as possessing an advisory trust from their Constituents in their religious capacities. They cannot…issue decrees or injunctions addressed to the faith or the Consciences of the people.”

Around 1832, Madison penned another Memorandum in which he called upon states that still had formal ties with religious bodies to emulate Virginia’s example of religious freedom through church-state separation. “Make the example of your Country as pure & compleat,” he wrote, “in what relates to the freedom of the mind and its allegiances to its maker, as in what belongs to the legitimate objects of political and civil institutions.” In other words, a pure and complete separation of religion from government.

Jefferson

For his part, Jefferson most famously expressed his church-state views in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, first drafted in 1777 and passed by the General Assembly in 1786. The statute opens with the statement that “Almighty God hath created the mind free.” Only a few lines later Jefferson notes that even the “Holy author” of religion chose not to propagate faith by coercing the mind, and he goes on to castigate “the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions.”

Thomas JeffersonHis statute goes on to say “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions” and for a civil magistrate to “intrude his powers into the field of opinion…is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty.”

In writing to Dr. Benjamin Rush, a co-signer of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson said, “Religion is a subject on which I have been most scrupulously reserved. I have considered it a matter between every man and his Maker, in which no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle.”

And, of course, there is the well known response Jefferson sent to the Danbury Baptists in 1802 after they’d expressed concern about the security of their own religious freedom. In this period Baptists were a minority faith and were frequently discriminated against and excluded as a result of collusions between government and majority religions. They wrote to Jefferson to ask that he do what he can as president to ensure their religion would be given fair and equal treatment. In his response Jefferson wrote: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Scalia and Thomas

Antonin_Scalia_official_SCOTUS_portrait_cropScalia’s insistence on “historical inquiry”—and his and Clarence Thomas’ corollary commitment to honoring the Founders’ original intents—have apparently missed much of what Madison and Jefferson had to say.

Compare the church-state positions of Madison and Jefferson against the Court’s Greece opinion, which tells citizens who see offense in being subjected to governmental prayer that they are free to leave the room, arrive late, or lodge a protest afterward. In short, the majority justices said if government wants to pray and even promote a specific faith, it can.

It’s worth noting as well that the plaintiffs in Greece were not asking the Court to ban town board prayers, but merely to ensure that such prayers are ecumenical and inclusive. This was actually a lesser standard of church-state separation than even Madison and Jefferson would be likely to have accepted, but still the Court said, in effect, sectarian governmental prayer is no problem. Live with it. This hardly qualifies as reflecting the Founders’ intent.

Justice ThomasOn the contrary, this is the kind of mindset Madison and Jefferson consistently opposed. Indeed, in many ways, it’s a mindset that Founders of many stripes fomented a revolution against. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention underscored this desire to separate church and state by going so far as to reject suggestions to bring prayer into their deliberations. The Greece town board’s public prayer habit thus turns history on its head, no matter Kennedy’s protestation to the contrary. It contradicts Madison’s and Jefferson’s positions, no matter that Scalia and Thomas agree with Kennedy that it is faithful to them.

In their separate concurring opinions in the Greece ruling, Scalia and Thomas move even further away from the clear separation of religion and government Madison and Jefferson called for by saying the Constitution is not violated by “subtle pressures” Greece citizens claimed to have felt with town board praying. The justices insisted it was only the imposing of religion “by force of law and threat of penalty” that the Founders objected to. A more careful read of what the Founders actually said finds their opposition to mingling government and religion to be far more encompassing and far less nuanced than that.

What else can it mean to assert there is no public right to intermeddle with an individual’s religion? What else does “a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters” mean?

The Founders’ Faith

It’s no secret that Madison and Jefferson in their personal lives practiced the independent thinking about religion that they brought to their public advocacy. While they were scrupulous in not attempting to foist their private faith convictions onto others by law or policy, understanding their personal religion aids understanding what they sought to achieve in something like the Constitution.

They were certainly not in the mold of today’s “religious right” with its constricted faith tenets and maneuverings for political influence, frequently on nonreligious issues. But they were just as certainly not atheists. They cherished their faith. They regularly made references to God, the Creator, the Holy Author, the Supreme Lawgiver. Both men were Deists, believers in a God who set things in motion and then did not intervene in the activities of humankind.

Jefferson believed Jesus to be a model teacher with wisdom worth sharing but did not believe in his divinity. He saw the Bible as holding some sound moral advice but also errors and superstitions, and he thought Christians as a group had by and large actually corrupted Jesus’ teachings. He dismissed the entire Old Testament and made his own “bible” by stripping out New Testament accounts of miracles and supernatural happenings. He was confident a society could be moral without being Christian and that human conscience and reason, rather than divine revelation, was the path to what he termed “true religion.” No wonder he once wrote: “Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. … What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites.” And “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Madison was fairly reticent about his religious views. He grew up Episcopalian but never formally joined a church. He is thought to have been greatly affected, and offended, in watching his father enforce laws against dissenting preachers, especially the Baptists. He is known to have opposed anti-Catholic prejudices, which were extensive in his time; Catholics in fact, also referred to as papists, were often the only religious group formally prohibited from holding public office. Madison was seen as someone open-minded and sympathetic on religious questions. In his famed Remonstrance he spoke of “the duty which we owe to our Creator” but immediately said the manner of discharging it “can be directed only by reason and conviction.” He included the statement: “Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offence against God, not against man.”

Though they advocated tirelessly for keeping government and religion apart, it is obvious neither Madison nor Jefferson was anti-religion. On the contrary, they viewed church-state separation as indispensable to protecting religious liberty, and especially protecting religious minorities, accommodating even nonbelievers. They were suspicious of any attempts to compromise on separation because doing so imperiled the religious freedom of anyone not in the faith or sect predominantly favored by government.

Scalia and Thomas vs. Madison and Jefferson

Compare these views and advocacies of Madison and Jefferson to Clarence Thomas’ astonishing contention, stated in past cases and stated again in his joint Greece concurrence with Scalia, that the Constitution restricts only Congress from establishing religion, but the individual states should be free to do so. Wrote the two justices: “The First Amendment was simply agnostic on the subject of state establishments; the decision to establish or disestablish religion was reserved to the States.”

Whatever linguistic parsing they have managed to twist out of the Constitution to draw this conclusion, there is no rational basis to see it as being consistent with what the Founders’ intent was.

Madison and Jefferson were also defenders of religious pluralism. In his autobiography, Jefferson looked back on the vote by Virginia delegates to not include specifying “Jesus Christ” as “the Holy Author” referred to in his Statute for Religious Freedom, and said this was “proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, The Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”

And now once more compare this to a Scalia dissent in the 2005 McCreary County v. ACLU case dealing with Ten Commandments displays on government property. In his dissent, he said the Establishment Clause does not protect religious minorities or nonbelievers from majoritarian sentiment and said it is a “demonstrably false principle that the government cannot favor religion over irreligion.” In addressing the conflict between adherents of minority religions and nonbelievers, and the majority believing in the religious precepts in the Ten Commandments, Scalia said, “Our national tradition has resolved that conflict in favor of the majority,” and the Establishment Clause “permits this disregard of polytheists and believers in unconcerned deities, just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists.” (By contrast, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, concurring with the majority, said, “We do not count heads before enforcing the First Amendment.”)

So according to Scalia, the Constitution gives a green light to “disregard” citizens who embrace faiths that majorities disapprove of. It must be asked: Not only does Scalia have a truncated, if not warped, grasp of the Founders’ history, but does he even understand the most basic meaning of religious freedom as the Founders envisioned it? Does it cross his mind that it was the genius of people like Madison and Jefferson that salvaged his own Catholicism from the “disregard” heap, thanks to their demand that government have no preferences or influence in matters of religion?

Consider one more case. In the 1992 Lee v. Weisman case, Daniel and Vivian Weisman protested prayers being said at their daughter’s graduation from Nathan Bishop Middle School in Providence, RI. They sued Principal Robert E. Lee and the school board. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in plaintiffs’ favor, applied the “coercion” test he had proposed in a previous case on a different church-state issue. He said students face subtle, coercive pressures to join in prayer and thus such prayers in context of a public school are not constitutional. Scalia dissented. Noting that President Bush had asked people attending his inauguration to bow their heads in prayer, he said the Weisman daughter and her family should be willing to do the same and “thank God for the blessings He has generously bestowed on them.”

In other words, Scalia’s view was that this family should abandon their own freely and conscientiously held faith and accept the majoritarian religion in its place. Exactly the kind of suppression of religious freedom that Madison and Jefferson fought fiercely against, and warned against it arising in the future whenever government and religion intermingle.

History matters

Constitutional originalists like Scalia and Thomas deride the concept of a Constitution whose meaning must evolve with the changing circumstances of history. Because, they say, this opens the door to finding rights and guarantees in the document that are not there, leading to judicial activism. They say this strays from the Founders’ original intents. (They are evidently untroubled by the practice of appending “so help me God” to the presidential oath even though the phrase is not prescribed in the Constitution, a document that was made 100% secular by the original intent they say they hold sacred.)

constitutionYet court rulings through the decades, many with the backing of such originalists, have arguably already strayed from the Founders’ intents on church-state matters—at least Madison’s and Jefferson’s intents—as more and more accommodations are made for allowing a level of religious imposition to occur under the guise of “religious freedom.” This is particularly so when religion and government intermingle instead of them being kept separate as Madison and Jefferson intended.

The Greece decision rested largely on the precedent case of Marsh v. Chambers, a 1983 decision that upheld the constitutionality of prayer led by chaplains in a state legislature. (But note that some legal analysts interpret Marsh to have okayed only nonsectarian prayer, whereas the majority in Greece specifically eschewed such a limitation.) One can plausibly maintain that the Greece ruling is in keeping with its precedent court opinions. What is far less tenable is to maintain that the reasoning in Greece is faithful to what Madison and Jefferson espoused.

In fact, when Greece is viewed in the context of its cited precedents, the question to be asked is whether the evolving law on church-state separation is on a wayward track, gradually straying from the principles the Founders handed down. Are we judicially “unlearning” our history, and could we risk repeating the history of religious favoritism, imposition, and strife the Founders labored so long and hard to do away with?

Scalia and Thomas aren’t helping us avoid that. It appears that for these self-described originalists, the revolutionary convictions of our Founders on separating religion and government were, well, just too revolutionary. It’s safe to say that if Madison and Jefferson were writing a majority Court opinion today on a church-state issue, Scalia and Thomas would be the ones filing dissents, with opinions that range from odd to contorted to chilling. Their views weaken Jefferson’s wall of separation and bring to mind Madison’s Remonstrance caution: It is proper to take alarm at these experiments on our liberties.

In recalling Justice William Brennan’s dissent in Marsh, one can all but hear echoes of Madison and Jefferson. He wrote: “Legislative prayer clearly violates the principles of neutrality and separation that are embedded within the Establishment Clause…. It intrudes on the right to conscience by forcing some legislators either to participate in a ‘prayer opportunity’ with which they are in basic disagreement, or to make their disagreement a matter of public comment by declining to participate. It forces all residents of the State to support a religious exercise that may be contrary to their own beliefs. It requires the State to commit itself on fundamental theological issues.”

That’s a perspective well in line with the views of Madison and Jefferson. Too bad Brennan isn’t still around to remind Scalia and Thomas what the true original intents of the Founders were.

We Are Not So Separate

A poem by Emma Brachtenbach

DSC_1895Last night, I slept upon the springtime, mountain ground and thought about the universe.

Under the ancient constellations I pondered the possibilities of sacredness and secular creation and my mind just wouldn’t stop turning.

Like how beautiful would it be if god was genderless and endlessly gendered all at once because then religion could be constructed as truly all encompassing. More than bodies and how we can compartmentalize human beings.

And what if the earth was our original mother: heart beat ringing beautifully every time a new soul slipped from the dark womb of the mother who made us into the light and people singing, creating concentric circles of care and nurturing.  The only tie is the cord reminding us where we come from and where we return.

What if science has it all wrong: the sun is a god who is born, thrives, and dies within the window of our day and sister moon watches over us earth children at night with the help of our cousin stars… We were all star dust once.

Or what if the true sanctity is just understanding how this universe remains in beautiful balance because that’s sacred too.

And the mountains that prophets stood on, spreading the word of their god, were their ancestors with ancient voices singing praises to the sun, and gods, and people, and animals, writing the sermon on the mount, genesis, enuma elish, the significance of the eight spoked wheel, sacred geometry in temples, and to step back and admire the galaxies in the smiles of sacred children.

We are not so separate.

And as I lie here pondering where I fit and where I come from and where I’ll go when I die, I remember that this is a privilege I was endowed with on the day I hit this planet running in search of answers and questions. How beautiful because sacred beings walk on feet. We are not so separate.

Creating Community Breakfast Raises over $51,000

DSC_1912More than 500 community members gathered to create community and celebrate diversity at Citizens Project’s tenth annual Creating Community Breakfast.  The breakfast highlighted the work Citizens Project is doing in the Pikes Peak region to promote equal rights, diversity, and religious freedom through separation of church and state, and civic engagement.

This event raised over $51,000 in general operating support for Citizens Project’s many programs including: candidate survey voter guides, its monthly publication Citizens Project Online News, and the Citizens Project Activist Network, which currently serves over 1,500 subscribers. Corporate and in-kind sponsorship for the event was provided by Cascade Investment Group, Platinum Relations, and The Colorado Springs Independent.

The Creating Community Breakfast featured a diverse array of speakers including: Heather Zambrano, Kristy Milligan, Lionel Washington, Emma Brachtenbach, Sarah Musick, and Siri Everett, with featured musical performance by Russ Ware, Crystal Lardy, Ryan Flores, and Yemi Mobolade.

The Creating Community Breakfast celebrated the role Citizens Project has played in creating a community which values diversity, equality and religious freedom. Citizens Project has worked tirelessly to combat extremism and promote respect for diversity in the Pikes Peak region seen since its inception in 1992.

#IHeartCOS

If you love Colorado Springs (and we know you do) join Citizens Project and the Pikes Peak Equality Coalition to spread the love today in our city:

  • iheartcoslogoFollow the action on Twitter and use #IHeartCOS to share your own reasons for loving this city
  • Change your own profile picture to the image at the right
  • Take a selfie and share with your Facebook friends and Twitter followers why you ♥ Colorado Springs
  • Finally check out this Buzzfeed article to see why others love Colorado Springs and maybe get some inspiration yourself!

We believe in the transformative power of language. By changing the conversation about our community, we can change our community. Help us as we shift the conversation from one of scarcity to one of abundance.

Happy End of the Gregorian Calendar Year!

By Anya Arndt

***Disclaimer: It’s “War on Christmas”-time again, and I’m sick of it. So if you think the “War on Christmas” is a real thing, you should probably stop reading here, because I’m about to take on “Happy Holidays” as well, and explain to you why that too should be removed from casual conversation with strangers.

It’s the “Holiday Season,” and as we grow accustomed to the inundation of society with red and green, it’s sometimes easy to forget how uninclusive even a wish of “Happy Holidays” can be. The “Christmas Spirit” permeates society, and in the back corner at Target, we see a small Hanukkah section that reminds us not everyone appreciates a wish of “Merry Christmas.” But “Happy Holidays” doesn’t do the trick either. While you may be hard pressed to find someone who outwardly takes offense to “Happy Holidays,”  the term still illustrates a relative lack of understanding of religious diversity in this country and of the variety of holidays celebrated throughout the entire year.

While ranking holidays in order of most important to least important in a given religion seems pretty arbitrary, if one were to go about that, he or she would find that December is actually home to only two high-ranking holidays: Christmas and Winter Solstice (Christian and Pagan, respectively). While Judaism is represented in December with Hanukkah, the eight-day festival doesn’t compare in significance to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or Passover. Additionally, because the scheduling of Hanukkah is based on the Hebrew calendar and not the commercially used Gregorian calendar, Hanukkah doesn’t always even take place entirely in the month of December (this year, Hanukkah is from November 27th to December 5th[1]). December is also home to Bodhi Day (on the 8th), celebrated by some Buddhists, but again, once that day has passed, “Happy Holidays” really isn’t a very inclusive greeting. While Kwanzaa is also celebrated in December, it is not associated with any one particular religious or spiritual tradition, and is not widely celebrated as a result.[2] So if you wish someone “Happy Holidays” in late December, you are basically assuming that he or she could only be either Christian or Pagan.

To emphasize my point, I’d like to offer a brief, and by no means exhaustive, list of religions that do not have holidays during the month of December: Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam (though Ramadan occasionally falls during December depending on the lunar calendar), Baha’ism, Jainism, Shintoism, Native American religions, atheism[3], Zoroastrianism, etc. All of these faith traditions are present in the United States, and all of them are essentially excluded by the greeting, “Happy Holidays.”

To be fair, I will probably inappropriately wish many people “Happy Holidays” for the entirety of the month of December, seeing as it tends to be rude to not return the greeting in our society. But I do believe that it is important to acknowledge that the wishing of “Happy Holidays” is just as Christian-centric as “Merry Christmas,” albeit a bit more discreetly.

So if you really want to be inclusive, try wishing your Muslim friends “Eid Mubarak” on Eid al-Adha (In 2014, this will be October 4-5). Or maybe wish someone Jewish “L’shanah Tova” on Rosh Hashanah (September 24-26, 2014).  If you have Buddhist friends, you can wish them a Happy Vesak Day (May 13th in 2014). I could go on with this list and I acknowledge that in not doing so, I’m excluding a whole host of religious traditions (but I don’t want to bore you, so I welcome you do some googling yourself to wish your friends well on their most important holidays or visit the BBC’s interfaith calendar).

My point is, it is important to understand that while the “Holiday Season” can be incredibly stressful for families celebrating Christmas, it can be incredible alienating for families who don’t. So let this serve as a reminder to be respectful of everyone you come across in the month of December, and maybe just wish them a good day, with a smile, like we all should on every day of the year.


[1] November 26th is thus “Thanksgivikkah,” if you will.

[2] I do not mean to offend by devoting little time to Kwanzaa in this piece, as it is a legitimate celebration of African heritage in African-American culture, but since it is not associated with any particular religion, it is not a “holiday” in the traditional religious sense of the word.

[3] While some atheists celebrate Christmas as a cultural tradition in the U.S., many do not. I am also not making any claims on whether or not atheists see themselves as part of a faith tradition by placing them in this list, seeing as some do and some do not, I am simply pointing out that atheism traditionally does not include a celebration of the birth of Christ as a spiritually significant celebration.

What Will Your Community Investment Be?

By Kristen R. Downs

Having moved from Washington D.C. to Colorado Springs more than 12 years ago, my husband and I had envisioned a ‘life-style’ change, from the hustle and bustle of traffic congestion and work-stress, to one of the most beautiful locations in the United States.  Colorado Springs, a tourist destination, with an ideal climate for year-round recreational activities and less commute-time seemed like the perfect community.  Having lived in Chicago and Washington D.C. prior to moving to Colorado, we were accustomed to diversity; the local grocery store was an eclectic mix of language and culture, and work colleagues represented diverse religious and sexual orientations.   In retrospect, it seems as if we took tolerance for granted.

Now our home for over 12 years, we realize that Colorado Springs has a reputation for lack of community investment and a civic intolerance for funding programs that do not have a tangible direct personal benefit to the taxpayer.  Whether parks and recreation budget cuts, lack of investment in diverse social programs, or slashes to education and public safety; all have a direct effect on the economic vitality and building of sustainable community in Colorado Springs.

If Colorado Springs is to attract young entrepreneurs and families, it needs to seize the opportunity to ‘create community’ now.  Exposure, civic involvement and embracing diversity are fundamental to community investment.    Passivism will not suffice.   The creation of community and the celebration of diversity in Colorado Springs are dependent on us.  Each of us can build the kind of community we dream of.  In our families, our organizations, institutions, and neighborhoods, we can insist that we won’t remain isolated from those who are different from ourselves.  We can transform our neighborhoods, institutions, and local government into equitable, tolerant, and diverse communities.

1005572_597914896914941_693335597_nFour years ago ‘community’ was celebrated every Wednesday night in America the Beautiful Park, at the heart of downtown Colorado Springs.  Hundreds of families of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds gathered during dinnertime, listening and dancing to hours of free outdoor live music while children played in the Julie Penrose Fountain and on the playground.   Families became acquainted in a celebration of diversity under the shadow of America’s mountain, Pikes Peak.  Those weekly concerts provided exposure to the heart of community, the beauty of our city, and displayed community investment, civic engagement and volunteerism.  Concert attendance grew until the program ended in 2009.  As concerts are rekindled in Acacia Park on Saturday evenings this summer, Colorado Springs has the opportunity to expose citizens to affordable outdoor activities which enhance its quality of life.  You can affect change; bring your family, invite your neighbors and invest in thriving cultural activities essential to a vibrant, sustainable community.   Let’s learn from cities like Austin, TX, one of the fastest growing cities for young professionals, celebrated by its community as the ‘Live Music Capital of the World’ and proud of its eclectic and diverse lifestyle.

Young professionals want to locate to communities that embrace social justice and respect for diversity.   Colorado Springs must recognize differences in religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomic backgrounds to help create a climate that welcomes differences and inclusivity.  Each group has a unique strength and perspective that the larger community can benefit from, and by bringing diversity into the center of civic activity, new creative ideas can be used to solve tough problems.   We need to make national headlines celebrating diversity and culture in Colorado Springs, while developing community leaders who are representative of our entire population.

How can we involve our children and create a sustainable, growing, culturally diverse and prolific community?   Recently, my 10 year old asked why our downtown church is open and affirming of all people, yet other churches and organizations are not accepting of gays and lesbians.  As a family, we discuss how all races, religions, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, genders and families deserve equal protections and rights.  Our four children attend a public Montessori school and the Hillside Community Center because there is a fervent respect for diversity, individual equality, deep-rooted community spirit, and a representation of all socioeconomic backgrounds.  Our family celebrates a diverse community by attending local concerts and pride parades, participating in community service, and volunteering to raise funds for local civic minded causes that give back to our community.  We want to instill a sense of community, civic responsibility and cultural respect in our children for a lifetime.  We believe Colorado Springs is worth the investment and we can all make an impact to ‘create community’, one family at a time.  What will be your contribution to the sustainability and vitality of our community?