By Celine Klosterman
DAVENPORT — From ancient Rome to New England colonies to 21st-century America, issues of religious freedom have pervaded human history.
Three professors and a lawyer explored some of those issues Sept. 17 at St. Ambrose University during a panel discussion, “Religious Liberty and the U.S. Constitution,” on Constitution Day. The event preceded the lecture “Sustaining Religious Liberty: The Health and Human Services Mandate and the First Amendment,” given by Carson Holloway, associate professor of political science at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.
Speaking to about 20 people during the panel discussion, Father Bud Grant, professor of theology at St. Ambrose, explored the Altar of Victory controversy that St. Ambrose of Milan wrote about in fourth-century Rome. A statue of the goddess of victory, Nike, stood where the Roman senate met. Christians walking into the building had to pass through smoke from incense burning in her honor. For this reason, St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, wrote to Emperor Valentinian II to object to use of the altar.
Centuries later, by the time of the American Revolution, nearly all colonies in America had set up the Church of England and banned non-Protestants from holding public office, Henry Marquard said. He offers corporate counsel for Stanley Con-sultants and coaches mock trial at St. Ambrose.
But the U.S. Constitution, in Article VI, later forbade religious tests for positions in government. This restriction is one of two places where the Constitution mentions religion. The other is the First Amendment, which prohibits laws establishing a religion or impeding the free exercise of religion.
Private companies, however, could legally avoid hiring workers on the basis of religion until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Marquard said his immigrant ancestors recalled viewing notices of job openings that warned: “No Irish or Catholics need apply.”
Today, he said, the intersection of religion and public life raises questions such as: Must a company insure the spouse of a gay employee? Can the government require a Catholic hospital that receives federal funding to provide abortion services?
People may think of religious liberty as the freedom to attend the church they choose, but the issue is more complex, Marquard said.
U.S. Supreme Court rulings have indicated government neutrality in matters of religion, but before Christianity in the West, governments always promoted a particular faith, Joe Hebert said. He is an associate professor of political science at St. Ambrose.
He cited Jesus’ words in the synoptic Gospels: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Who draws the line between Caesar and God? Hebert asked. “This is the essence of the philosophical problem.”
He offered three models for the relationship between church and state. The first, which characterized the Middle Ages, places religion above government because faith addresses the most important aspect of human existence – salvation. The second model prioritizes the state, reasoning that only earthly matters such as life, liberty and property are certain. The third model tries to balance church and state, but what balance looks like may be controversial.
The U.S. Supreme Court first ruled on the free exercise of religion in 1879 in Reynolds v. United States, Holloway said. Defendant George Reynolds, a Mormon charged with bigamy, argued that a federal ban on polygamy infringed on his First Amendment right to practice his religion. The court ruled against him, saying that if it made a faith-based exception to the ban on polygamy, other individuals could claim the right to do illegal acts — such as making human sacrifices — if their religion required it. Every citizen would “become a law unto himself,” the court said.
In Sherbert v. Verner in 1963, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a plaintiff who lost a job that conflicted with her faith. Adell Sherbert, a Seventh-day Adventist in South Carolina, was fired from her position as a textile mill operator after refusing to work on Saturdays. The South Carolina Employment Security Commission later denied her request for unemployment benefits, having rejected her religious justification for declining Saturday work. But the court ruled that making benefits depend on her “willingness to violate a cardinal principle of her religious faith effectively penalizes the free exercise of her constitutional liberties.”
The case established that if someone claims the government has violated religious freedom, the government must prove it is acting out of a “compelling state interest” and is pursuing that interest in the way least restrictive to religion.
These cases and others show how complicated matters of religious liberty can be, Marquard said. “In a country with multiple religious groups, there’s no perfect solution.”
By Celine Klosterman