The NY Times on Catholic Charities and Same-Sex Marriage

recent article in the NY Times reports on the effect of Illinois’ same-sex union law on Catholic Charities’ foster-care placement services.  In particular, the article notes that non-discrimination provisions in the law, which require Catholic Charities to treat couples in same-sex unions the same as those in traditional marriages when placing children in foster care, has caused the organization to cease offering foster-care services altogether. Catholic Charities also ceased foster-care services in Massachusetts and Washington DC when same-sex marriage became law those jurisdictions. Focusing on these three jurisdictions, the Times article suggests that these non-discrimination provisions are a form of increasing government religious persecution aimed at excluding religious groups from the public sphere. However, the article ignores those legislatures which have worked hard to protect the freedom of religious organizations through religious exceptions.

New York, New Hampshire and Vermont all allow wide exceptions for religious organizations that oppose same-sex unions. These states provide that religious organizations do not violate non-discrimination provisions when they take actions that are calculated to promote the religious principles for which they are established or maintained. Such exceptions have been integral to the passing of the same-sex marriage laws. In New Hampshire, Governor John Lynch refused to sign a same-sex marriage bill into law until the legislature increased the protections for religious organizations. In New York, the Republican members of the Senate who ultimately provided the necessary votes for same-sex marriage said that they could vote for the bill only because it protected religious organizations. Indeed, far from persecuting religion, these states have extensively debated how to balance the rights of these religious organizations with the policy of non-discrimination.

Public Internet Access and the Establishment Clause

In a lawsuit filed yesterday, a resident of Salem, Missouri, claims that a public library’s decision to bar her Internet access to “occult” web sites, as well as those that impart “criminal skills,” violates the Freedom of Speech and the Establishment Clause.  The ACLU is spearheading the law suit (h/t Religion Clause blog). 

Setting aside the Free Speech Clause, and as respects the Establishment Clause claim alone, the allegations are that the library’s screening policies block access to information about minority religions, and specifically “Native American spirituality and related spirituality” including the Wiccan Church, Druidism, Haitian Voodoo, and Neo-Paganism.  These policies have no secular purpose, have the principal effect of promoting some religions over others, and endorse “particular faiths and viewpoints,” according to the complaint.  This language is drawn from Lemon and the endorsement test decisions. 

I am having a difficult time seeing how, even if one agrees that these tests ought to be the standard, these facts make out an Establishment Clause violation.  There might be all sorts of reasons that websites about various religions are blocked by a public library: the overinclusiveness of the screening mechanism, the dangerousness of the content of the site, the links on a particular site (which themselves may go to dangerous content), and the untrustworthiness of the site (it may have viruses).  There are many other possibilities.  And it does not appear that web sites about other religious minorities have been blocked.  Is the claim that by blocking access, the library is endorsing Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Wahhabism?  That can’t be right.  But if the claim is that the library is endorsing Christianity by blocking access, then how does the plaintiff account for the access that is granted to other minority religions?  And as for secular purpose, protecting the public from dangerous material on the Internet seems like it might fit the bill.  Consider the example of Satanism: it would be permissible for a library to block access to Satanic sites not because it was disfavoring Satanism in particular, but because of the dangerousness of Satanic practice.  Of course, the defendant will need to show that public safety or some similar secular reason grounds its Internet access decisions here.  

Note that saying that the policy does not seem to violate the Establishment Clause is perfectly compatible with the view that it is poorly conceived, closed-minded, obtuse, mindlessly bureaucratic, or even problematic under the Speech Clause.  It may be all of those things, of course, too.

Rick Santorum and Evangelicals

Last night, Rick Santorum finished second in the Iowa Republican caucuses, a mere eight votes behind Mitt Romney, propelled by strong support from Evangelical voters. According to entrance polls, Santorum received the votes of a third of Evangelical voters. You might say that’s not a big deal, since two-thirds of Evangelical votes went to other candidates. The thing is, Santorum is a Roman Catholic, and the Evangelical/Catholic divide was traditionally a strong one in American politics. The idea that a Northeast Catholic would get strong support from Midwest Evangelicals — far more than Evangelical candidates in the race like Michele Bachman and Rick Perry — shows how much the politics of American religion has changed in the last two generations. On many politically-salient issues, Evangelicals and Catholics today make common cause. The results from Iowa offer more evidence that the  divide in contemporary American politics is not so much between religions, as between voters who have traditional religious commitments and voters who don’t.

The Americanization of British Religion

As I wrote last week, Americans think of Britain as a very secular place. I suppose most Britons do, too. Now and then, though, one gets the sense that religion, specifically Christianity, is not completely passé and may, in fact, be making a comeback. Peter Oborne has an interesting piece in The Telegraph this week, “The Return to Religion,” in which he argues that churchgoing is again becoming a “national pastime” in Britain, particularly in London. He gives several examples. Oborne attributes the renewed interest to economic austerity and the sense many Britons have that the materialism of the past generation has let them down.

I’m not sure what to make of this. Oborne may be looking at isolated examples. Or perhaps the rise in religion is only a temporary phenomenon that will be lost in the larger and more lasting move away from religion. We’ll just have to see.

One trend that is apparent in Oborne’s piece is how “American” British religion is becoming. Much of the new success results from American-style marketing. Anglican parishes no longer wait for neighborhood people to come: they reach out with niche programming like actors’ groups. “Church plants” like ChistChurch London, whose website makes it look a lot like an American urban evangelical megachurch, are increasingly prominent. Oborne also notes the rise of Pentecostalism, a form of Christianity that began in twentieth-century Los Angeles, which appeals to immigrants from Africa. Observers have been writing about the Americanization of world religion for some time; recent books by journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, and by French scholar Olivier Roy, come to mind.  Oborne’s essay suggests that these writers are really on to something.