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Showdown: God's Law Versus Secular Law.

An essay donated by Susan Humphreys

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Since the dawn of time, human beings have struggled with the problems that arise when the actions and beliefs of one individual or group collide with (come into conflict with) the actions and beliefs of another person or group.

Since their inception, religions have tried to find ways to help people reconcile their differences so they can all live together in relative harmony for the benefit of everyone in their group. Some religions and individuals have a very narrow conception of who belongs to their group and thus who are entitled to the same rights and privileges they demand for themselves. Others, like me, have a very broad conception and see all humanity as being a part of "my" group and entitled to the same rights and privileges that I have.

Some religious groups create an "us" (the good guys) versus "them" (the bad guys) scenario. The "bad guys" include anyone who doesn't believe what the "good guys" believe. The resultant conflicts are tearing our world apart. The "good guys" try to create and enforce unity within their own group, AND attempt to justify and sanctify their actions and beliefs by claiming that they, alone, are following "God's Law." Further, they believe that their conception of God's Law takes precedence over secular law and over the religious beliefs and freedoms of the "others".

Those who support religious tolerance believe that differences in beliefs aren't bad things, and that somehow we all have to accept (tolerate) our differences and find a way to live in harmony with each other in order to survive and thrive together. It is also about accepting that if I want my rights upheld -- including the right to believe what I believe and live my life according to my beliefs -- I am honor bound to uphold the rights of others even when those others reject my beliefs.

I believe that our founding fathers were aware of these challenges and devised a system of government based on Civil Laws, not Religious Laws, that:

  • Protect the rights of all people from the whims and prejudices of tyrants, and

  • Protect the rights of minorities from the tyranny -- the whims, prejudices, and fears -- of the majority.

When the principles of equal rights and protections for all are ignored in favor of an individual's perception of religious law, the civil and religious rights, freedoms, and protections for all of us become jeopardized.

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There were Christians who used the Bible to support their belief that slavery and later racial segregation, were the moral position derived from God's law). Meanwhile, abolitionists used the Bible to support their belief that slavery and "separate but equal" rules were immoral and a violation of God's Law. Today there are Christians that support the rights of the LGBT community and use the Bible to support their desire for equality, even as there are other Christians that use the Bible to support their right to discriminate against and persecute the LGBT community.

In each case one group is following "God's Law" and another group is seen to be in defiance of "God's Law"? They can't both be right.

Which version of the Bible is the TRUE, RIGHT "Word of God"? The King James, the New International, the Tynsdale Bible (which was the first attempt to translate the Bible into English), the Geneva Bible with its strong Calvinist slant, or the Rheims with its Catholic slant, or one of the other translations? There are some major differences in the translations.

Who amongst us is qualified without prejudice to determine what "God's Law" is? The Pope, an Ayatollah, a Rabbi, one of the Televangelists, the majority, every individual? Is there any individual citizen that can honestly tell the rest of us what "God's Law" is, without prejudice or bias? On a PBS interview a while back a Catholic Theologian declared that God is beyond human comprehension. I think he wanted to put an end to questioning. If that is the case than anything a person says about God, about his/her nature or characteristics, about what he/she demands from us, what his/her Law is, is nothing more than a figment of human imagination. If God is beyond our comprehension we can't make any claims at all about him/her!

In an article in the Religion Dispatches web site a while back, Patrica Miller states succinctly the position taken by the Religious Right on some Supreme Court decisions.

"An individual's interpretation of God's Law should be given deference over the courts' authority to administer civil law simply because it is a religiously informed belief." 1

During 2017-FEB, Judge Neil Gorsuch -- the Appellate Court Justice who first handled the Hobby Lobby case -- has now been nominated to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. People are concerned that he will give precedence to religious beliefs over secular laws in the future.

In another article on the Religion Dispatches web site, 1 Alex Luchenitser from the organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is quoted as commenting that Gorsuch ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor, "arriving at a disconcerting conclusion that 'a substantial burden on religious exercise' is whatever the petitioner says it is." 1

Aren't all legal decisions basically about deciding whether the plaintiff's rights and beliefs take precedence over the defendant's rights and beliefs? Don't both sides have to present some factual basis for their argument, to establish they are making a truthful claim, they can't just claim that something is their opinion and it should take precedence over another's opinion? In determining guilt or innocence or whether harm was actually caused, don't both parties have to offer proof? Decisions aren't just made because someone believes someone else is guilty or believes that harm was caused. In a Secular Court the same demands for proof, for evidence to back up a position, should be made on those presenting the secular argument and on those presenting their religious argument. Showing preference to a Religious argument without demanding proof of their claims -- which is equally required of the Secular claims -- is to show preference to Religion over a Secular position in violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

It seems to me IF Religious folk are going to insist that their religious beliefs grant them special privileges that take precedence over secular laws or that the secular laws that affect the rights of all people should conform to their religious beliefs, then they should have to prove that they aren't simply making these claims in an effort to manipulate the laws of the land. They should have to prove that their beliefs aren't just based on their opinion, or their bias and prejudice. IF their religious beliefs are based upon bias and prejudice they carry no greater moral authority than the secular position, and decisions made to settle disputes between the two should give no special consideration to religious beliefs over secular positions simply because someone declares their beliefs are religious.

After the Supreme Court ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, one Justice commented that he could tell that the Hobby Lobby folks were "sincere" about their beliefs.

I thought: wait a minute, something is wrong here. Should judges be determining legal cased based upon whom they think is sincere or insincere? How does a Justice determine who is or who isn't sincere?

Then there is the claim of "undo hardship" made by the Hobby Lobby folks -- forcing them to provide a form of birth control they disapproved of would place an undo hardship upon them. Judge Gorsuch as mentioned earlier arrived at the conclusion:

"that a 'substantial burden on religious exercise' is whatever the petitioner says it is." 2

Shouldn't they be required to prove that it actually does cause an undo hardship, that they aren't just making that claim in order to manipulate the court? Is it really an "undo hardship" or simply "discomfort"? Does one partiy's claim of "undo hardship" justify causing an undo hardship on the women that were denied access to birth control? Don't the religious beliefs and rights and freedoms of those women matter? Isn't there a legal precedent called the burden of proof? Doesn't guilt or innocence or harm caused have to be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt"?

Consider:

  • The owners of slaves at the start of the Civil War were "sincere" in their beliefs and could point to biblical passages that supported their "peculiar institution". Opponents of slavery were also able to point to Biblical passages that supported their "sincerely" held beliefs. BUT our nation decided that the rights of the slaves and the needs (the greater good) of our nation took precedence over the "sincerely" held beliefs of the slave owners and abolished slavery.

  • Ponzi scheme operators and con men of all stripes are obviously quite "sincere." At least, they come across as being "sincere." Otherwise I can't imagine people would fall for their schemes if they thought they were "insincere". YET we don't allow their "sincerity" to excuse them from the harm they cause others.

  • Can one be sincere if one's beliefs are based upon a lie? I think that some people think that "sincerity" just means "heart felt". Shouldn't legal decisions be based on something other than "heartfelt" emotions? Many people are very good at manipulating emotions, their own and others. Courts should be wary about allowing themselves to be manipulated.

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"Heartfelt" however is a misleading definition of sincerity. My dictionary offers this definition:

"Freedom from pretense or deceit; honesty."

So there won't be any misunderstanding deceit is defined as:

"Making a person believe as true something that is false, deceiving, lying, cheating; a dishonest trick, lie spoken or acted."

Can someone be sincere, or heartfelt, if one's beliefs are dishonest, based upon a lie? Or are they simply being manipulative?

How do you determine if any religious belief or secular belief for that matter is sincere, free from pretense of deceit, honest?

Don't you base that determination on what we call the "facts"? It might bebased on data or statistics collected on something, historical or scientific facts. One such fact in the Hobby Lobby case is that the birth control methods the Hobby Lobby folks objected to are not abortifacients. So right off their position wasn't sincere. In personal accident or injury cases doesn't the injured party have to offer proof, documentation, medical records, photographs, to prove they were injured? Courts don't accept tears or sob stories as proof of injury.

If a person says that something violates their religious beliefs, how do you determine if their beliefs are sincere? If they say they believe the Bible is the word of God and that Gods word must be obeyed, shouldn't they have to prove that the Bible is the word of God and not the word of the Devil or the word of other men's Egos? In order to do that won't they first have to prove that God exists? Texts cannot be God's word if there is no God? If there is no God than the Bible carries no more moral authority than other books! How can something be an "undo hardship" if there is no God to punish them or to bring his wrath down upon the nation?

Isn't this why (or one reason why) our founding fathers tried to erect that barrier between the secular and the religious in our legal system? One of the reasons why they created the "wall of separation" between religion and state was so that religious people wouldn't through their own folly, put themselves in the position of having to prove the unprovable -- having to prove that God exists?

Our founding fathers wanted our country to be ruled by laws, not by emotions, bias, prejudice, fear or hate. AND they believe these laws should be applied equally to all, Religious folk of all faiths, and secular folk of no faith.

It seems to me that IF religious folk are going to insist that:

  • Their religious beliefs should take precedence over secular positions, or
  • The laws of the land should conform to their beliefs as based upon their interpretation of the Bible, and
  • Their belief that the Bible is God's word and carries greater moral authority over secular positions,

Then, they should have to prove that the Bible is God's word and that God exists.

If they object to having to do that, than their religious beliefs should be kept out of secular legal decisions!

The ART of Civilization is finding ways to accommodate the rights and freedoms of one individual or group against the rights and freedoms of other individuals and groups while always keeping in mind that it is what is good for the whole country that is the most important factor.

Too many people are demanding that their rights and freedoms be upheld and to put it bluntly don't give a damn about the rights of freedoms of others.

Our nation (our President, our Congress, our Judges and our Citizens) must not lose sight that it is what is best/good for the whole country that is the most important factor.

Sometimes that means that an individuals freedoms (Secular and/or Religious) are curtailed, and they suffer some discomfort, so that they don't impinge upon the freedoms (secular and/or religious) of others and upon what is best for the country as a whole.

The rule of law, including burden of proof, rules of evidence, concepts about reasonable doubts, should be applied equally to all: religious and secular in our secular law courts.

Related essays on this web site that you might find interesting:

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Patrica Miller, "What Kim Davis and the Little Sisters of the Poor Have in Common," Religion Dispatches, 2015-SEP-10, at: http://religiondispatches.org/
  2. Will Justice Gorsuch Prioritize 'Religious Freedom' Over Civil Rights?," Religion Dispatches, 2017-FEB-02, at: http://religiondispatches.org/

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Originally posted on: 2017-FEB-27
Author:
Susan Humphreys
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