Religious Liberty and Kalei Wilson

If you haven’t been following the Kalei Wilson story it goes something like this: fifteen-year-old Kalei Wilson, and her seventeen-year-old brother, Ben Wilson, submitted an application to Pisgah High School in Canton, NC to start a chapter of the Secular Student Alliance. Their application was rejected and Ben told the New York Daily News that he was informed their club would “not be a good fit,” a decision which may have violated federal law. Kalei and her brother responded by reaching out to the Secular Student Alliance’s national organization for help, and together they put pressure on school officials to allow them to start their SSA chapter. The situation became muddied when the attorney for Haywood County schools, which includes Pisgah High School, asserted in a letter on behalf of school administrators that the difficulties claimed by Kalei and Ben were manufactured as part of a publicity stunt engineered by Kalei Wilson’s father. The school eventually caved to legal pressure, but social pressure, including personal threats, led Kalei to abandon the club. In the aftermath of the scholastic drama both Christians and secularists have reached out to show support for Kalei’s initiative and struggle. Google Kalei Wilson and you’ll see a variety of news reports and blog posts chronicling her experience and offering a variety of opinions. (A rather heartwarming and encouraging response can be found here.)

This story is interesting to me for several reasons. One of them is that it comes on the heels of the legal drama surrounding Arizona’s SB 1062, popularly known as the “Turn Away the Gays Law.” I’ll write more about this law, and what it represented before it was vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer, in future posts. However, the discussions surrounding both Kalei Wilson’s story, and SB 1062 revolve around a single phrase that has become an increasingly popular topic of late: religious liberty.

The popular understanding of religious liberty is that it is a basic right, written into the US Constitution, which ensures that anyone can practice their religion as they see fit without interference from the state or other citizens. The reality, however, is slightly more nuanced. The concept of religious freedom is derived from the establishment clause in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

The phrase “no law respecting” implies that the government cannot legally sponsor any particular religion or religious practice, while the phrase “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” implies that that the government cannot legally restrict any particular religion or religious practice. The result is a legal buffer zone which severely limits the extent to which government can make legal comment, prohibitive or affirmative, on the religious preferences and practices of its citizens.

Because Pisgah High School is a public school, Title 20 dictates that  they do not have the right “to deny equal access or a fair opportunity to, or discriminate against, any students who wish to conduct a meeting within that limited open forum on the basis of the religious…content of the speech at such meetings.” Harassment by other students led her to abandon the club to avoid further conflict, but the law clearly supported Kalei’s right to start a chapter of SSA at her school.

Of course, there are grey areas, and even a few exceptions, in the way legal rights arepractically translated. These grey areas reveal themselves when we’re forced to ask examine the ethics and legality of certain religious practices. For example, should Appalachian Snake Handlers be permitted to store and handle venomous snakes (a question that touches both on safety and animal cruelty)? Is is child abuse when Christian parents employ corporal punishment in accordance with Proverbs 13:24?Does an underage patient have the right to refuse a life-saving blood transfusion on religious grounds? Should children be removed from parents who refuse chemo-therapy or other traditional medical treatments for religious reasons? And should the parents be charged with murder if the child dies as a result?

Each of these questions, none of them hypothetical, forced individuals, communities, and officers of the law to weigh the rights implied by the first amendment, against the rights of parents to determine the values and practices of their family unit, against the laws of the land, which dictate health and safety measures with respect to adults and minors. In each of the above situations, however, the consequences of religious practice—while occasionally dire—extended only as far as the individual and their immediate family: worshipers who willfully handle venomous snakes, a minor who wished to refuse a blood transfusion, and parents who wish to discipline and care for their children in accordance with their beliefs.

The grey area becomes more pronounced when we consider a person whose religious practices (or lack thereof) affect not only themselves, but a diverse community. For example the legal tussle surrounding Hobby Lobby and Notre Dame’s religious exception to the Affordable Care Act (more on this to come), or any time the resources of a community are diverted towards the interests of an ideological minority. Often, the majority comes to conflate their ideological dominance dominance with their freedom of conscience, and it is this conflation from which much of our current religious liberty dialogue is currently springing in the United States today. ♦

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