In 2014, Hobby Lobby won a landmark Supreme Court decision that exempted the home-goods chain from providing certain forms of contraception to employees. The Court ruled that closely held for-profit companies whose owners have religious objections are protected under the First Amendment. But the 5–4 ruling left many in confused outrage: How can a for-profit company invoke a Christian identity? Shouldn’t a business operating in the secular sphere have to play by secular rules?
For Stephen Monsma and Stanley Carlson-Thies—two scholars with long experience tracking tensions around institutional religious freedom—such protests rely on cramped notions of what counts as “religious.” Their new book, Free to Serve: Protecting the Religious Freedom of Faith-Based Organizations (Brazos), assesses the dangers an uncomprehending secularism poses to religious businesses, colleges, social service agencies, and student groups. CT associate editor Matt Reynolds spoke with Monsma and Carlson-Thies (fellows with the Center for Public Justice) about the religious-liberty challenges facing faith-based organizations.
What is the basic problem your book addresses?
Monsma: The book grew out of our deep concern over challenges to faith-based organizations seeking to follow the religious commitments at the heart of who they are and what they do. You see this on many fronts. These challenges aren’t random; they reflect prevalent assumptions in our society. Until these assumptions are shown to be false, we’re afraid the religious freedom of faith-based organizations will remain under threat.
Carlson-Thies: We looked at a number of areas. Some issues are matters of internal operations: Can a faith-based organization hold employees to religious standards? Do their health plans have to include coverage for contraception or abortifacients?
Other questions concern how they serve the public, and whether they have to abide by secular protocols: Can religious adoption agencies receiving public money refuse to place children with same-sex couples? Can Catholic agencies serving refugees under a government grant refuse to refer clients to abortion providers? These are just some of the controversies we consider.
What are some of the broader assumptions that place the religious freedom of organizations on shakier footing?
Monsma: One very basic assumption is that when faith-based organizations provide public services—addiction treatment, college education, or overseas relief and development—they have somehow left religion behind and are now engaged in secular activities. If this is true, you can regulate these organizations without really violating their religious freedom. Religion, under this assumption, is something that takes place within churches, synagogues, and mosques, not when religious people form organizations to live out their faith in public.
Carlson-Thies: Jesus said there are two great commandments. One is to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. We fulfill this in worship and in prayer. The other is to love your neighbor as yourself. That happens when we serve the needy. Our culture tends to see worshiping God as realreligion; service, although it’s something religious people do, is not shaped by religious convictions. If that’s the case, then World Vision, Teen Challenge, and the church’s soup kitchen are just engaged in humanitarian work. And if so, there’s no problem requiring that it be done the way a secular organization would. This mindset paves the way for regulations and court decisions that forget the faith-shaped way these activities are carried out.
Monsma: We saw this years ago in a case involving World Vision, which had fired some employees who no longer agreed with its statement of faith. The employees’ attorneys argued that World Vision is not a religious organization: It doesn’t ordain clergy, baptize people, or celebrate the sacraments. They argued that World Vision is not a church; therefore, it could not hold employees to religious standards.
Most believers understand that religion isn’t limited to what happens inside church walls. How can we persuade those who adopt this narrow definition?
Monsma: Examples are the best teachers. Organizations need to be as concrete as possible about the link between the services they provide and the faith commitments that shape them. The more explicit the connection, the easier it is for outsiders to see that feeding the hungry and visiting the sick are areas of Christian duty.
Carlson-Thies: It’s important for faith-based organizations to introduce themselves to local leaders, council members, and congressional representatives, to explain what they do and how that’s related to their faith. This way, when political authorities are making decisions, they have an image in mind of what they’re influencing and the possible consequences of interference. It’s vital to lay this groundwork before the situation reaches a crisis point.
As an antidote to the pressures facing faith-based organizations, you develop the idea of “principled pluralism.” What does this look like in practice?
Monsma: Nonbelievers respect and make room for believers to practice their faith, and believers respect and make room for people of all faiths, and for nonbelievers. Tolerance and respect go both ways. Organizations should be free to be secular, even to promote secularism.
Carlson-Thies: A political system isn’t a church. It needs to be fair to everybody. That means respecting different convictions. We don’t imagine that all moral views are equally valid or that all roads lead to God. Pluralism isn’t relativism. Ideally, we’ll continue to argue vigorously about different principles and work on persuading each other to try a different path. But when we haven’t persuaded each other, we need space to live out our convictions.
America, in particular, is so diverse that it’s tempting to say, “Let’s make everything secular. Then everyone will be treated equally.” But that’s equal treatment only in the sense that everybody’s distinct convictions get privatized or suppressed. That isn’t fair to this deep motivation people have to live out their convictions with integrity. Principled pluralism acknowledges basic human nature, and the fact that we have to live together, despite our disagreements.
Monsma: As an example, we look at Christian student organizations on college campuses. A number of universities, such as Vanderbilt, have said that groups with religious standards for leaders cannot receive official recognition. Under principled pluralism, that’s totally wrong. There should be evangelical Protestant groups committed to those beliefs. The same goes for Catholic, Muslim, or Jewish groups, or gay-pride organizations. That leads to diversity. But if groups want to advocate their positions in a university atmosphere, it’s important that they have leaders who embrace their beliefs.
Does principled pluralism have biblical underpinnings, or is it just a pragmatic plan for social peace?
Monsma: Our vision is rooted in the belief that human beings are created in God’s image, as rational, thinking, creative beings with a moral sense and moral accountability. That means that no one should be forced into a secular mold—or a Christian, Muslim, or Jewish mold.
Carlson-Thies: The Bible doesn’t offer a rulebook for governance. But with sin having entered the world, there are going to be divisions. Fundamentally, we’re broken in different ways; we follow different paths, different idols. It’s clear in the New Testament that God holds back his judgment and sends rain on the just and the unjust. It’s not our task to separate the wheat from the tares.
Scripture indicates that it’s not the job of government to play God and say, “We know exactly how things need to be done.” We all tend to want our way of life to be the standard we live by. But others have very different views about how things ought to be done. On what basis is it fair, right, or honorable to say, “You can’t live out that conviction”? Of course, some things are objectively bad, and the government can’t allow them. But it ought to be careful about jumping in casually to resolve disagreements.
Are there limits to a faith-based organization’s religious freedom?
Monsma: We have to recognize that even though we are diverse, we are one society. Therefore, there have to be limits on, say, promoting violence, or advocating a violent overthrow of the government. Principled pluralism isn’t simply a free-for-all.
Carlson-Thies: It’s hard to say, in the abstract, where the line should be drawn. Of course, some things are fundamentally beyond the pale. People can’t kill each other because they feel God calls them to. With such great diversity in our society, it’s difficult to find consensus on what’s reasonable or acceptable. But this very diversity of values is an important reason to allow institutional diversity, so that people of differing convictions have a range of choices.
Let’s say an organization has exhausted all possible legal avenues in protesting a wrongful restriction on its religious freedom. Are there ever grounds for further resistance, including civil disobedience? Or would that undermine the climate of mutual respect and trust that principled pluralism requires?
Carlson-Thies: These service organizations face a real dilemma. If they lose in court, do they just pack up and go home? God calls them to do adoptions, feed the hungry—whatever it is. But they are convinced God calls them to do that in a particular way. Civil disobedience is something they ought to think carefully about. It might help lawmakers, judges, and the public realize what’s at stake, and maybe rethink the way the rules were applied.
But it’s a tough spot for organizations. They have to meet budgets, and they are responsible for donated funds and any public monies they have. But I hope that, at least on occasion, some leaders would say, “It’s not right for us to be forced to choose between our convictions and continuing to serve.”
Monsma: There is a line that organizations shouldn’t cross. Every faith-based organization—their boards, their leadership, their staff—has to think about that line. Where can we be flexible, so we can keep serving? And where do we have to say, “This far and no farther”? Do we engage in civil disobedience, or just accept that we can no longer take government funding?
Carlson-Thies: Organizations are dedicated to providing services, not spending their time on Capitol Hill. Also, many leaders are worried that speaking up publicly or signing a letter will get the organization in hot water. Government officials in charge of who gets the next grant or contract may take their protests into account. But organizations need to invest some time and energy, and even their reputation, in speaking up for their own freedom to serve in a way they believe pleases God. If they can’t find their voice, it shouldn’t be a big surprise when restrictions are handed down.
Are faith-based organizations ever partly to blame for their present predicament?
Monsma: Many organizations downplay their religious character, so as not to jeopardize their eligibility for accreditation or government funds. But we argue that religious practices are better protected when organizations are explicit about their faith commitments in their mission statements and on their websites.
Carlson-Thies: When American culture was more conventionally Christian, it was easier for an organization to be part of the woodwork. Nowadays, when governments give more scrutiny to religious expressions in public, it’s tempting to stay quiet, because you could lose accreditation, a license, a grant, or a seat at the table.
But if organizations hide their religious character, then it’s no surprise when society doesn’t see their important role. A nonprofit that’s masked its religious commitments to avoid offending public opinion is in a poor position to defend its prerogatives. Paradoxically, when lawmakers and regulators are suspicious of religious organizations, that’s exactly when forthrightness is needed most. It’s important not to hide the light under a bushel.
To what extent should religious organizations rely on legislative measures like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)?
Carlson-Thies: The viability of faith-based organizations can’t depend on legal protections, as important as those are. It has to rest on their willingness to testify to their religious character, to speak to their neighbors about who they are.
If RFRA disappeared, that would be a real setback. It helped determine the outcome of the Hobby Lobby case, and I’m sure it will be important in many others. But the law won’t be sufficient if enough legislators decide that religion is only about what happens in churches. There was an effort, in fact, to limit RFRA’s jurisdiction over businesses. Fortunately it fell short, but that reminds us that these have to be living principles, not just words in a rulebook.
What effect can we expect from the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage?
Carlson-Thies: The real dilemma is for organizations with a strong commitment to biblical marriage that have asked workers to abide by their values. On the surface, the Court’s decision affects only state governments. The ruling did not say that a faith-based college or nonprofit has to change its views on marriage.
But now that same-sex marriage is legal nationwide, there are worries that federal, state, and local governments will press the logic of the decision into new areas. Will this mean, for instance, denying accreditation to schools that don’t accommodate same-sex couples as staff? We aren’t at that stage yet. But organizations are worried. It’s one thing to change your views because of conviction. Our fear is that organizations will feel compelled to change their views to avoid being punished for violating what government officials regard as a basic standard of equal treatment.
Monsma:Roe v. Wade is instructive. Congress responded by passing the Church Amendment, named after Senator Frank Church of Idaho. The amendment guaranteed that no health-care professional with conscientious objections to abortion would be required to provide one. In a rough sense, that could provide a pattern for our response, as a society, to the same-sex marriage decision. It may be the law of the land, but will it force a perspective onto everyone who disagrees?
Given the current climate, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects of principled pluralism?
Monsma: Religious freedom has lost in a number of cases, and others have been very close. Yet many cases have been won, and often, when religious freedom is challenged, the religious community reacts. If faith-based organizations recognize the challenge they face and speak up clearly, we can turn this around. It’s essential to insist that defending religious freedom is not about forcing our beliefs onto others; it’s about remaining true to our beliefs, just as members of various faith traditions and nonbelievers should be free to do.
Carlson-Thies: This year, the Mormon Church came together with LGBT advocates to help pass a nondiscrimination law. The Mormon representatives made clear that no one should be fired from a job or denied housing because of sexual orientation. But they also made clear the church’s fundamental views about marriage and family, and the importance of being free to express them. The two sides arrived at a compromise that protects both the safety and flourishing of gay people and the rights of religious institutions to remain faithful to their values.
The result isn’t perfect, and it can’t be replicated everywhere. But it’s a model of principled pluralism at work. This gives me hope that we can continue building on the best traditions of American history.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.