Religious groups often involved in helping others assert rights

Written by William C. Duncan

September 16, 2022

The most recent Supreme Court religious freedom case involved an individual whose ability to act on his beliefs was limited by the government. This may be the classic image of a religious freedom dispute, but many critical controversies involve religious groups, just as many free speech and free press claims are brought by organizations.

This is true for a number of reasons.

First, association with others allows individuals to assert their rights more effectively. Defending against state prosecution or challenging state policies can be expensive and time-consuming. Thus, even individual rights are usually asserted with the help of others such as nonprofit law firms.

Second, religious beliefs often compel believers to join with others. They may have a mandate to share beliefs or gather to strengthen one another. Religious beliefs almost always include duties and ethical obligations to others as well.

Third, and related to the prior points, religious obligations to provide aid to others in need will typically be carried out in group settings, by groups such as HIAS (which began as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) or Samaritan’s Purse. A prime example of this is religious education – schools organized by religious organizations, typically to provide all types of education informed by faith.

It is not surprising that religious freedom is linked with other rights in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, including the provision that has been interpreted to protect a freedom of association. Religious groups have been key in the past to bolstering the recognition of the right of association.

Last year I wrote:

The best example of the principle [of religiously influenced freedom of association] in action … comes from cases that do not explicitly mention association. These are the decisions in which the Supreme Court ruled the government could not hear lawsuits challenging internal religious disputes, such as over who would promulgate the message of a religious organization.

This year, an Aug. 31 Indiana Supreme Court decision applied this principle.

In that case, a former employee sued his employer, “Cathedral High School, a Catholic school in Indianapolis,” alleging he was fired because of his same-sex marriage. The Indiana Supreme Court determined it did not have authority to look into communication between the Catholic Archdiocese and the school about the employee because it involved “a matter involving church discipline and doctrine.”

This type of claim, the court determined, was precluded by the “church autonomy doctrine,” which is derived from the First Amendment. This describes the rule that secular courts cannot be involved in cases that require the court to weigh the merits of religious teachings or to insert itself into internal church deliberations.

It is easy to see how this approach protects many other actors in civil society, like political parties, trade unions, and other groups that promote policies meant to advance the public good. Our constitutional system, as Alexis de Tocqueville explained, is bolstered by lots of nongovernment associations that voluntarily carry out projects to help others and that sustain the qualities of responsible citizenship needed for the formal government system to operate.

The more the government injects itself into the internal workings of such nongovernment associations, the more those organizations must spend time and resources simply appeasing government regulation. This leaves them with less time and resources to fulfill their civic functions that serve the common good. By seeking protection from certain government regulation under the freedom of association, religious Americans have helped establish legal precedents that protect nonreligious associations from similar government intrusion.

Yet another way that religious citizens’ efforts to secure freedom benefit all others.

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