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

Preserving Religious Freedom: An Interview with Stephen Monsma

Michelle Crotwell Kirtley


By Michelle Crotwell Kirtley

Capital Commentary recently interviewed Center for Public Justice fellow Stephen V. Monsma about his new book Pluralism and Freedom: Faith-Based Organizations in a Democratic Society (2012).  Stephen V. Monsma is a Senior Research Fellow at the Henry Institute at Calvin College and Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Pepperdine University.

What audience were you writing for?

I was primarily writing for academics and students interested in the religious freedom rights of faith-based organizations, for persons active in faith-based organizations, and for persons in advocacy groups that either support or oppose protecting the religious freedom rights of faith-based organizations. 

But the question of the religious freedom rights of faith-based organizations is not merely a theoretical, academic question…It is a here-and-now issue that faith-based colleges and universities, K-12 schools, hospitals and health clinics, adoption and foster care agencies, overseas relief and development agencies, urban rescue missions, and many, many more faith-based organizations are facing. 

Down through the centuries Christians and those of other faiths have sought to live out the commands of their faiths to care for the sick and poor and to educate the young at least in part through organized efforts.  Those efforts are facing legal pressures to secularize as never before.  This should be a concern of every Christian and all those—secularist and believer alike—who value religious freedom…That is why my book is important for all to read; that is why I worked hard to make it understandable and readable for all.

What deficiencies or errors in current thinking on the subject of religious freedom were you responding to?

The most important one is the assumption that religion is a private, personal matter related to churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious congregations and [their] prayers, religious rituals and observations.  Also included would be the individual, private prayers and devotional readings practiced in their homes.  Under this point of view, faith-based organizations stop being religious when they enter the public realm to offer tangible educational, health, and social services to the public, and, therefore, the same rules that apply to all other organizations offering the same services apply to them. 

How is current policy living up to the ideal you describe in your book? 

There are some signs of hope, especially in the right of faith-based organizations to take religion into account in hiring staff members…Just recently a unanimous Supreme Court upheld what has called the “ministerial exemption,” that is, the right of a faith-based organization to determine the qualifications of its “ministers,” and with “minister” defined somewhat broadly.  In 2010 World Vision won a court case after firing three employees who could no longer sign its statement of faith.  And the Obama administration—to the dismay of several liberal advocacy groups—has not changed the Bush administration’s policy of allowing faith-based organizations to hire based on religion when receiving government funds for some of their programs.

And how is currently policy failing to live up to the ideal you describe in your book? 

The biggest threat today is coming from laws and regulations that may force faith-based organizations either to act in violation of their religiously-informed beliefs or to leave an entire area of service.   Some states are forcing Christian foster care and adoption agencies to place children with same-sex couples on the same basis as mother-father families.  Several secular universities and law schools have refused official recognition of Christian student organizations because they require their leaders to accept historic Christian beliefs and behavior standards.  The Obama Administration is saying it will require faith-based organizations to provide contraceptive coverage in their employees’ health care policies, a provision that runs contrary to long-held Catholic teachings.  And since “contraceptives” is defined so broadly as to include abortifacients, some evangelical faith-based organizations are also affected in deeply troubling ways, including Colorado Christian University which has gone into court on this issue. 

Especially dangerous today are the attempts of the gay rights movement to label any attempt to require or uphold faith-based sexual standards as “discrimination.” Also, some women’s rights advocates seek to require faith-based organizations under some circumstances to provide birth control, sterilization, and abortion, even when doing so would violate their religiously-based consciences.

My big fear is that unless we address and begin to change the underlying assumptions and mindset of such actions, the battle for faith-based religious freedom rights will over the long haul, bit-by-bit be lost.  We must struggle against these forces on a case-by-case basis; we must also address the underlying assumptions—as my book seeks to do.

--Michelle Crotwell Kirtley is the Editor of Capital Commentary and a Trustee of 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.”