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Church and state sign

(Photo credit: Edge of the Frame/Wordpress)

By Rick Plasterer

American religious freedom tends to be understood as protecting the integrity of religions, whereas Europeans see religious freedom as balanced by the state against other interests. This appeared to be the overall assessment of the contemporary situation for religious freedom by panelists at a conference on contrasting American and European models of religious liberty sponsored by the Religious Freedom Project of the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University’s School of Law on Thursday, October 11.

Among the panelists was Kyle Duncan, Senior Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who reviewed the  Supreme Court’s recent Hosanna-Tabor decision, in which the court unanimously decided that the “Ministerial Exception,” which exempts clergymen and teachers of religious doctrine from anti-discrimination law and policy was grounded in the “no establishment” and ‘free exercise’ clauses of the first amendment, and is thus a constitutional right held by the employers of religious ministers. This exception is absolutely essential to prevent the state from becoming involved in ecclesiastical decisions, Duncan said, and if it were not absolute (perhaps pertaining only the religious doctrine), it would involve the state in judging religious doctrine.

Another Becket Fund panelist, Mark Rienzi, noted however, that in America, while freedom of religious belief is non-controversial, freedom of religious action is disputed. But the need to protect religious action has been recognized and addressed by legislative action. There are specific laws protecting liberty of conscience. An original exemption from military service was expanded from objecting religious groups to anyone with a religious objection to military service, and finally to anyone with a moral objection. Likewise, the right to refuse participation in abortions soon gained conscience protection after abortion became legal, through the Church Amendment (named for Senator Frank Church) which was quickly adopted after the legalization of…

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