Religion In America: Accommodation, Not Coercion
Religion & Liberty Online

Religion In America: Accommodation, Not Coercion

The Supreme Court recently decided (in Greece v. Galloway) that the New York town of Greece had the right to open its town board meetings with prayer, and that this did not violate the rights of anyone, nor did it violate the Constitutional mandate that our government cannot establish a religion. The town, the Court found, did not discriminate against any faith, and there was no coercion to pray.

We know that the Founding Fathers were not all Christians. However, they all wished to see a nation where religious faith was respected and accommodated. The president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom, Alan Sears, writes:

Religious coercion was a great concern to the Founders, and rightly so. But their view of coercion was true coercion, in which people were ordered to act (or refrain from acting) in violation of their conscience. For the Founders, coercion looked more like the current health care dispute in which the government is compelling family businesses to provide insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs regardless of those families’ deeply held religious beliefs. That’s coercion. As to how the Founders viewed legislative prayer, there can be no question; they considered it a desired accommodation of religion, and not coercion.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and praise. His proclamation invoked “Almighty God.” Most of us celebrate Thanksgiving today as a day of friends, family and a recollection of prayerful thanks for the many blessings we have. Yet no one is coerced into doing so, and one would be hard-pressed to find an American who is offended by the simple idea of being thankful. Sears reminds us that the Founding Fathers took the idea of “coercion” seriously, “and did not dumb it down to include being ‘offended.'”

We must realize the difference between the accommodation of people’s faiths, religious beliefs and practices, and the coercion of people to behave or act in a way someone thinks they should. Of course, no one can be forced to pray; you can drag someone into a church building, but you don’t have any control over their thoughts. We should not attempt to force someone to pray, nor should we attempt to force anyone to take part in a religious service or ceremony against their will. We are aghast at such practices in other countries: a woman being forced into an arranged marriage or a man being stoned to death for refusing to convert to a particular faith.

Yet, we now find ourselves in this very position in the United States. The Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission has ordered a baker to make cakes for same-sex couples’ weddings. (There is a bit of irony in that the civil rights commission is ordering someone to do something that violates their civil rights, isn’t there?) at The Federalist:

Jack Phillips isn’t discriminating against gay Coloradans. Gay customers, as far as all the news stories have suggested, are free to shop in the bakery and purchase (at the same price) any of the cakes, cookies, pastries they like without ever being asked by anyone who they love or what the gender equation is in their sex life. Public accommodations, fine. But the fact is that Phillips does not want to participate in a specific ceremony because he holds authentic, well-documented, age-old religious objections to such an event in the same way that a Hasidic Jew or orthodox Muslim may not want to participate in a ceremony that proclaims Jesus our Lord and Savior.

Should someone be forced to violate their religious rights? The Supreme Court says it may be allowed…if there is a clear and compelling interest. It’s hard to imagine that there are not other bakers in Denver (where Jack Phillips is from) who are not willing to bake the biggest, brightest, blingiest cake for any gay couple. But Jack Phillips should not be coerced into doing it; his religious beliefs mandate he cannot take part in this type of arrangement.

Americans are being asked to accommodate same-sex marriage. So be it. Must we be coerced into taking part in the ceremony or the festivities following? If we don’t understand what “accommodation” is, we will certainly have coercion.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.