Open a drawer in a hotel room, and you’ll most likely find a bible. Maybe not a telephone book, but a bible distributed by an association called Gideons International. Representatives from the organization have been putting the books across the country for over a century. During World War II, they also gave a copy to each person in the U.S. Armed Forces. After the war, abridged bibles went to all public and private school students between the fifth and twelfth grades after Gideons spoke to assemblies at the schools. The first three years of the program saw 4.2 million copies into the hands of students with a plan to give out a total of 25 million. Many communities required Christian prayers and/or Bible readings in the classrooms.
Original objections came from Jewish leaders opposing the distribution of the New Testament, and Catholic officials fought the Gideon Bible in classrooms because canon law forbids use of the King James Version. Liberal Protestants disapproved, and the editors of the Christian Century claimed that public schools are “not the place” to evangelize because of the Christians have “a duty to respect separation of church and state in relation to the schools.” Complaints led to lawsuits, and the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in 1953 that one school board had clearly favored one religious faith.
Stunned by the decision, the Gideons believed that “Satan has been and still is vigorously opposed to this particular program.” Their appeal to the Supreme Court, however, failed, and the Gideons decided that they were better off without a federal ruling limited to only New Jersey and returned to the other 47 states. Pennsylvania ruled against their actions while Minnesota accepted the bibles in public schools. By the late 1950s, about 43 percent of school districts allowed the bible distribution program, a majority of these in small towns and the areas of the South and the Midwest. Starting with the 1947 ruling against the Gideons, the Supreme Court has ruled five times against these distributions, but the bibles kept going into the classrooms, in Kentucky as recent as last year.
In the center of the country, Oklahoma has found itself in the center of a firestorm after Attorney General Scott Pruitt passionately defended the right of conservative Christians to proselytize public school students by handing out religious materials. When the American Humanist Association threatened a lawsuit, Duncan Public School District ended a teacher’s distribution of bibles in the classroom. “Few things are as sacred and as fundamental to Oklahomans as the constitutional rights of free speech and the free exercise of religion,” Pruitt wrote. He continued with the tired meme about the attack on religious freedoms by people “who seek to undermine our constitutional rights and threaten our founding principles.”
The Oklahoma Constitution states:
“Perfect toleration of religious sentiment shall be secured, and no inhabitant of the State shall ever be molested in person or property on account of his or her mode of religious worship; and no religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.”
One religious group believes the words of the state constitution and attorney general. Satanist Church of Ahriman leader, Adam Daniels, has requested permission to distribute its church handbook to students at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School where the third grade teacher handed out bibles to her students. Daniels told school officials that his church’s handbook is much less “graphic” than the Christian bible. Last year, Satanists received the right to distribute its materials at a Florida school just before the school banned the distribution of all religious materials.
The current demand for “religious freedom” can help improve the country in these areas of need:
Homeless People: In Texas, Joan Cheever is fighting a $2,000 fine in San Antonio for violating the city ordinance against feeding homeless people, using her religious faith as a reason.
Undocumented Immigrants: Leviticus 19:33-34 – “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.” People who provide undocumented people with housing or jobs shouldn’t be charged with a felony if the follow their religious compassion.
Using Marijuana: The original Religious Freedom Restoration Act came from a lawsuit about a Native American’s use of peyote; the Indiana secretary of state has already approved a petition from the First Church of Cannabis Inc. to grow hemp. The use of marijuana can be a religious ritual.
Overfishing: Because the Bible calls shellfish an abomination, vegans and vegetarians might legally block piers and free lobsters from traps.
Climate Change: Members of the GOP have already declared that the belief in human-created climate change is a “religion,” an issue of “faith.” Throughout the Old Testment verses require people to be good stewards of the land. For example, Numbers 35.33-34: “Do not pollute the land where you are… Do not defile the land where you live and where I [God] dwell.”
Pope Francis clearly understands the importance of being good stewards of the land, and the Koch brothers are unhappy about his position. Their Heartland Institute is sending right-wing “scientists” to tell the pope why he is wrong, both scientifically and biblically, especially after he announced he plans to meet with the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, and other experts to discuss what policymakers and religious leaders can do to better combat the worst effects of climate change. The Koch brothers will attempt to persuade the pope that “there is no need for a radical reordering of global economies that will cause massive reductions in human freedom and prosperity.” In addition, the right-wingers allege that the pope is being “misled” by experts at the United Nations who have “proven unworthy.” Heartland insists that humans are using the land for biblical purposes—the benefit of humanity.
The pope will frustrate the Koch brothers with another position on social issues—equal pay. He called on Christians to demand equality in gender wages. “Why is it expected that women must earn less than men?” he asked. “No! They have the same rights. The disparity is a pure scandal.” The pope explained that his position doesn’t come from attempts to advance women’s rights but said that the higher wages for men is “a form of chauvinism that always wants to control the woman.” Christians should “decisively support the right to equal pay for equal work.”
After two years of being pope, Francis took an important step when he ended the Church’s investigation and control of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a move instituted by Francis’s predecessor, Benedict. The organization that represents about 80 percent of Catholic nuns in the United States had been censored because they paid more attention to helping the poor and homeless than pontificating against abortion and marriage equality. A report states that the “implementation of the mandate has been accomplished.” Catholic Church doctrine still prevents women in the Church from birth control use, but the nuns can return to their good works without punitive measures.
While the pope calls for more freedom, the U.S. Catholic Church is trying to be more restrictive. Like Cincinnati, the Catholic Diocese in Cleveland (OH) has established an “expanded” list of offenses and reclassified teachers as “ministers.” At the five Catholic schools in the city, teachers can be fired if they don’t adhere to the new morality clause with such forbidden behaviors as “[p]ublicly supporting abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research, in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, surrogate parenthood, direct sterilization, or so-called homosexual or same-sex marriage or unions.” Other prohibited behaviors on the list are having or helping someone obtain an abortion, any extramarital sex or living with a partner without being legally married, “lewd or sexually suggestive” emails or texts, pornography use or unlawful drug use.
The leadership’s excuse is that “each and every teacher and administrator in a Catholic school, whether they teach religion as a subject or not, is called by the Church to model Jesus.” The new “ministers” might raise the question of biblical references to “surrogate parenthood” and “direct sterilization.” In fact, they should raise the question of how they are actually “ministers” with no personal life outside their employment. Could this requirement be extended to medical practitioners or even everyone who cleans Catholic hospitals and schools? Is a cafeteria worker at a Catholic building a “minister” by providing nourishment?
Anyone finding these questions ridiculous needs only to remember that a for-profit company of craft items now has “religious liberties” and can make opinions for people based on “faith” and not science. Will “religious companies” have the right to control the personal life of all their employers?
A recent example of a “religious business” is the auto repair shop in Grandville (MI) where Brian Klawiter bragged on his Facebook page that he wouldn’t repair cars for LGBT people. In fact, if they ask for his services, he might “fix” a car so that it could kill the driver. Although his behavior is legal in Michigan, he’s having trouble getting a city business license because he won’t accept the city ordinance stating that the city has “authority to enter (licensed businesses), with or without search warrant, at all reasonable times.” He wants to be exempted because he thinks the licensing process is a violation of his constitutional rights.
Perception of these constitutional rights differ from one person to another. Tom DeLay, former House Majority Leader, recently said—again—that God wrote the Constitution after he created the nation. “I think we got off the track when we allowed our government to become a secular government,” DeLay explained. That takes rights from everyone except conservative Christians—maybe even the pope.