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Religious & Political Issues

Religious & Political Issues

Author: Ted Fairchild

Understand that conflict can arise between church and state in the U.S. and identify specific historical examples.

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Religious and Political Issues

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Hello and welcome. So what happens if a government, say, that is founded on the principles that include religious freedom-- what happens if this government creates laws that run counter to the beliefs and practices of a particular religion?

Well, in 1862 under President Abraham Lincoln, the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act was passed by the US Congress. In the midst of the Civil War, however, there was little energy or resources for enforcing its mandates. The mandates stated that anyone practicing polygamy, or plural marriage, would be subject to a large fine and up to five years in prison.

Well, one possibility of what happens when this kind of conflict erupts is that they will eventually have to be looked at and dealt with in a court of law. And this was the situation back in 1878 with a famous case of Reynolds versus the United States of America.

Polygamy was not uncommon among the early Mormon pioneers who had worked their way west to settle on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. And in fact, polygamy is still practiced today among several fundamentalist groups, Mormon fundamentalist groups. Well, with the Mormon leader, Brigham Young's, commitment to stay out of the business of the Civil War, President Lincoln turned his head for a time. 16 years later, however, the US court system was not so tolerant.

George Reynolds, a Mormon and senior support to Brigham Young, presented his own plural marriage activity as a test to prove that the US government was trying to outlaw plural marriage, or polygamy. And therefore, the US government was contradicting itself with respect to the First Amendment, freedom of religion. Reynold's defense was that, as a male member of the Church of Latter Day Saints and of the Mormon faith, his religious duty was to have many wives and multiply. In certain interpretations of Mormonism, the practice of plural marriage is closely tied to the spiritual commitments of the faith of Mormonism.

The US Supreme Court found Reynolds guilty, ultimately distinguishing between religious belief or opinion and actions that spring from those opinions. In other words, the court agreed that it could not rule on belief but has the responsibility to uphold the law if actions run counter to that law. In this case, the law was based on and traced back to English law, a law from the 16th century under King James I of England, the law of monogamy.

And among the Native American tribes of North America of the United States, there are many cases of religious ideology and practice running into conflict with governmental structure and policy and legality-- for example, the use of ceremonial medicines and plants for use during ceremony and ritual. There have been several significant Supreme Court cases regarding the legality of peyote use among citizens of the United States in the territory of the United States.

We're all familiar with the complex and tragic history of the Native American population on the land that is now called the United States. Among the associated customs, beliefs, and practices of the indigenous people is the ceremonial use of the psychoactive plant, peyote, a cactus. For thousands of years, many tribes have handed down the belief that ingesting the sacred plant facilitates communion with the spirit world and the realm of the ancestors.

Well, in 1990, there was a famous Supreme Court ruling. Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith. The state of Oregon effectively tried to deny unemployment benefits to Alfred Smith on the grounds that he had committed a crime, that he had ingested peyote, an illegal substance. Naturally, Alfred Smith's defense was that peyote was used in the context of a ritual ceremony and justifiable on the grounds of the First Amendment, the freedom of religion.

And peyote use in ceremonies was a part of his tribal religion, which was now in association with the Native American church, a legal religious entity in the United States. The Supreme Court stated that the use of peyote in ritual association within the religious tradition is not a crime but the Supreme Court ultimately left jurisdiction and the final indictments in the hands of each individual state.

Another conflict between religion and state and federal legal structures is in the domain of health insurance. Just in the last several years, there has been debate around the issue of a federal mandate that employer healthcare plans cover services for contraception, contraceptive services. Well, for many Catholic organizations and individuals within these organizations, this presents an ethical dilemma, something that's directly in conflict with their religious beliefs and specific principles of their religion, specifically with regard to contraception.

The Supreme Court's standard position on issues like this stem from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's 1990 peyote ruling that we just looked at. In Scalia's words, "the right of free exercise of religion does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground at the law proscribes and prescribes conduct that his religion proscribes or prescribes.

So now to quickly review-- we've been looking at conflicts that have erupted between religion and religious groups and individuals with regard to their rights under the Constitution and legal structure of the United States. We started with the subject of polygamy in the Mormon religion and its effective banning by President Abraham Lincoln.

And then we discussed the issue of peyote use in ritual and ceremony among members of the Native American church. And we briefly outlined the Supreme Court's ruling, which effectively left the business of indictment in the hands of individual states. And finally, we saw that the 1990 peyote ruling by the US Supreme Court, which included Justice Scalia, is still referred to for issues related to religious freedom and beliefs as they interface with public policy, states law, and federal mandate.

And for this final example, we referred to Catholic employers who struggle with the ethics of complying with federal mandates to provide healthcare packages that include contraceptive services, a practice that is generally out of line with the beliefs of certain Catholic organizations and the individuals that comprise those organization-- not an easy matter and no easy solutions.

Politics and religion go hand in hand in the modern day. No shortage of excitement. Hopefully, there's no shortage of constructive debate on the issues, as well.

Take care. I'll see you next time.

Notes on "Religious and Political Issues"

Justice Scalia quoted in “The Jurisprudence of Justice Scalia: A Critical Appraisal.” Chemerinsky, Erwin.
Image of Peyote Road, Public Domain,
Image of Peyote Cactus, Creative Commons,
Image of Peyote Ceremony, Creative Commons,
Image of Antonin Scalia, Public Domain,