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By Julia Polese

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Thursday the Center for American Progress hosted a panel event entitled “Religious Liberty: What It Is and Isn’t.” The event featured Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, Sammie Moshenberg of the National Council of Jewish Women, Melissa Rogers of Wake Forest Divinity School, and openly partnered homosexual Episcopal Church Bishop Gene Robinson. The panel ran the gamut of religious liberty issues, but mainly focused on same-sex marriage and contraception. Robinson set the tone for the event with his opening words: The “evidence that religious liberty is being attacked is a […] red herring and it is interesting that it is coming from one side.”

The panel discussion showed the deep philosophical divide that runs between liberal and conservative religious people on the definition of religious liberty and the future of religion’s role in the public square. While the United States has maintained a robust religious public life in its civil activities, the definition of religious liberty offered by Robinson and the others betrayed an alignment with a European sphere-based model. This bias was very clear in the questions about same-sex marriage. Repeatedly, the New Hampshire bishop said that “marriage is a civil issue.” He explained his own same-sex ceremony in his church. First, he and his partner were “married by our female Jewish lawyer” at the back of the church where, as he put it, the secular meets the sacred. Then, after they were married, they walked down the aisle to be blessed by the Episcopal Church. This decision was lauded by the other panelists. Rogers agreed that civil marriage and religious marriage should be separated and Robinson went so far to say that the word “marriage” should be “given to the civil culture.”

Others have explained why getting the church “out of the marriage business” is a bad idea for the state, but what was interesting to me is that Robinson and the others on the panel placed the power to confer marriage solely in the hands of the state. Repeatedly, Robinson emphasized that he and his partner were already married as they walked down the aisle from their lawyer to be blessed by the church. Rogers commented on the customary words at the end of a marriage ceremony – “by the power invested in me by the authority of the state” – were always strange to her. Isn’t “authority invested in you by a higher power?” she asked rhetorically.

The answer is yes. For Christians, marriage is not and cannot be fundamentally a civil ceremony. It was divinely instituted in the Garden and it is for divine purpose – to image Christ and the Church. For Robinson, an Episcopal bishop, to assert that a religious marriage ceremony means nothing more than a blessing of a state-invested power is a denial of scriptural authority and millennia of Church tradition that maintains marriage as a covenant before God. This attitude implicitly moves sacred authority from the church to the state, which has drastic implications for religious liberty. Robinson gave France as an example the United States could follow. He claimed that, in France, “everyone gets married in the mayor’s office” and then gets blessed in their respective faith tradition. But France is hardly the paragon of religious liberty. Laïcité – the principle that separates religion both from public power and from the public sphere – has largely been regarded as hostile to religion and effective in the radical secularization of French public life. It has not been good for almost any religion and played a large role in the French ban on the Islamic hijab in public in 2004.

The general denial that faith encompasses all aspects of life for many Americans and, simply, that it is a broad worldview that cannot be compartmentalized into explicitly religious activities pervaded both the discussion of marriage and the contraception debate. After boiling down the upcoming Fortnight for Freedom organized by the “anti-family planning, anti-women’s equality” U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to a “marketing campaign to their flock,” Moshenberg claimed that the conscientious objection argument for faith-based institutions opting out of the HHS mandate is a slippery slope to those institutions disapproving of out-of-wedlock pregnancies denying their employees pre-natal care or anti-retroviral medicine to employees suffering from AIDS. Only the government can save us from such daunting specters in the form of the Catholic bishops and conservative evangelicals! Rogers reasonably pointed out that the First Amendment primarily places restrictions on the government from meddling in the church. When the state does interfere with religious practices (like the decision out of Oregon that prevented religious ceremonies using the drug peyote), the burden of proof is on the government to explain its decision.

Alexis de Tocqueville lauded the United States for its enthusiasm for civic associations, of which the church one of the primary examples. He wrote in Democracy in America that Americans did not find religion and liberty to be at odds with each other, as Tocqueville’s post-Enlightenment France asserted. Rather, he writes, “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot.” It would do well for clergy like Robinson to remember these words.