Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

An Important Year for Religious Liberty

Timothy Sherratt


By Timothy Sherratt

January 5, 2015


The place of religion in public life drew mixed messages in 2014. In Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores, arguably this year’s most important decision, the Supreme Court found that the owners of a “closely held” for-profit company cannot be required to set aside their religious convictions in deference to a government mandate to provide contraceptive services to employees. In its decision, the Court’s majority stressed the unconstitutional burden this would impose on religious liberty.

On the question of abortion and contraception, the courts proved willing to uphold the legislative framework created to secure religious liberty two decades ago—the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). When the issue was sexuality, however, RFRA was deemed much more controversial. In April, the Supreme Court let stand a New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that a Christian photographer’s refusal to photograph a gay wedding ceremony violated the state’s Human Rights Act.

These two cases have been the subject of much more extensive commentary than I mean to give them here, where they serve simply to illustrate the growing complexity of life in a pluralistic society. An important feature of that complexity, and one that is instructive for everyone, Christians included, is the constant testing of taken-for-granted principles as new circumstances emerge.

In Hobby Lobby, the court broke new ground by recognizing that religious belief is an organizing principle that may shape areas of life not usually associated with religion in American culture. With our inclination to treat religion as private and to tolerate it on that basis, the recognition that citizens seek to organize businesses along religious lines and may count on religious liberty to protect them in these endeavors is highly notable.

In the New Mexico case, conducting a business along religious lines was held not to permit discriminating against any would-be customers. Because the court declined to hear the photographer’s appeal, the observer was left to conclude that the state’s public accommodations principles outweighed religious liberty principles. The case raises as many questions as it answers and will likely not be the last word on the subject.

These cases, and others like them, are fraught with the tensions common to pluralistic societies. On the positive side, the courts that are asked to resolve them display as a rule a capacity for hearing the facts with a healthy measure of impartiality. On the negative side, the outcomes can generate fear and fuel a polarization that is no longer merely political, but broadly cultural.

But these are also debates for our churches, not for the courts alone. Legal decisions are binding but not frozen. We should resist the wilder claims of slippery slopes for the fate of religious conscience based on selected outcomes. Courts develop their understandings of what the constitution requires case-by-case. They announce principles that decide cases, but refine them in the face of circumstances that frame the issues in new ways.

What churches can do well is to carry the conversation for principled pluralism into our communities with hospitality and neighborly concern for fellow citizens. Recoiling from controversy may be instinctual for Christians, but it must be weighed against the real value of engaging our neighbors and our fellow church members, whose views may surprise us. After all, 2014 was also the year of revived racial tensions and it has been reassuring to see churches playing an active role both in trying to defuse them and to pursue justice. Whether in racial matters, issues of sexuality, or religious liberty, active engagement by the Christian community models principled pluralism.

The year 2014 ended with a number of commentators picking up the Pew Forum’s research showing broad support for core Christian beliefs and for the display of Christian symbols on public property—with similar levels of support across all age groups. Among those voicing support for public displays, some 28 percent would validate the practice only if others’ symbols could also be displayed, joining the 44 percent who would allow them without restriction.

This is, for Christians, a welcome indication that polarization has not restructured beliefs and attitudes without leaving at least some room for toleration. Welcome as that toleration for religious symbols in the public square may be, it is surely of greater importance that Christian citizens should be found there actively engaged in pursuit of the common good.


-  Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts and a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”