Éirinn go Brách!!!

May 23, 2015

As you all have probably heard by now, voters in the Republic of Ireland have voted heavily in favor of marriage equality.

Congratulations!

Reports are that the turnout was very high by recent standards, especially among the young; and Irish citizens resident abroad returned home in significant numbers to vote (international mail ballots were not allowed). Naturally the largest majorities were in Dublin, but rural areas voted in favor also, just more narrowly; only one electoral district seems to have voted “no,” and that also by a rather small margin.

It has been pointed out that these same rural areas voted against the 1996 divorce referendum which passed very narrowly on the basis of support in the capital.

Maybe some people just want gays to have an equal right to be trapped in unhappy marriages.

More likely, the shift is a symptom of the loss of authority on the part of the Catholic Church. Whereas not too recently the Irish were considered the most pious nation in Europe, the last couple of decades of sex abuse scandals, along with general modernization and cosmopolitanization of society at large, have taken a toll; church attendance, once over 90%, has declined to levels closer to those in the rest of Western Europe, espcially (of course) in Dublin and especially among the young. The speed of secularization in Ireland is reminiscent of the Quiet Revolution in once ultra-pious French Canada.

So there’s more to write about the decline of religion in the modern world; stay tuned.

Last week the Storting (Parliament of Norway) gave the necessary second approval to a constitutional amendment terminating the longstanding relationship between the Lutheran Church and the State. http://bit.ly/Lce9Tm Apparently the Church is still regarded as the folkekirke (church of the people, or nation), but otherwise all religious bodies are to be considered equal. The government will no longer  have a say in the appointment of pastors or bishops, though it will still provide the church with funding (as it does for other religious bodies as well).

There doesn’t seem to have been much controversy over this move; the Church approved it, and only three members of the Storting voted against.  Now there is a proposal to eliminate religious holidays, if not Easter at least the more obscure ones like Pentecost. Both disestablishment and elimination of Pentecost have been proposed in Denmark also.

According to figures I looked at a few years ago, Norway was a bit behind Denmark and Sweden in the rate of secularization, though still ahead of most of Europe; now though I see that estimated church attendance has declined to 2% of the population, which is about as low as in the rest of Scandinavia, and 46% of the population considers itself atheist.

I should look up the current situation in Finland, where a few years ago there was a large spike in the number of people canceling their church membership (using a nifty online tool they have) after some religious leader made an anti-gay statement on TV…

Last week the Supreme Court unanimously decided that a “ministerial exemption rooted in the First Amendment” protected a church school against a claim of discrimination by an employee classified as a “called teacher” and “commissioned Minister of Religion.” Commentary on the decision has been generally favorable; liberals have been happy to point to it as evidence that there is no “war against religion” going on as alleged by a number of religious and political conservatives.

The teacher in question claimed to have been fired in retaliation for threatening to invoke the Americans with Disabilities Act rather than relying on the internal procedures her church requires. Her duties had involved teaching religion as well as secular subjects, and leading her students in daily prayer; she argued however that the school also hired lay teachers to perform the same functions (though only when a called teacher like herself was unavailable). This had been enough to persuade a lower court to allow her suit;  the Supreme Court overruled that decision.

All authorities seem agreed that there is a ministerial exemption; the question was how broadly it extends. A church obviously has to be free to choose and dismiss its own priests, pastors etc in accordance with its own principles, or freedom of religion is seriously impaired. On the other hand an electrician or house-painter employed (or seeking employment) by a church probably should have the same rights as one employed (or seeking employment) by anyone else. The present case clearly fell somewhere between. Given the religious nature of at least some of plaintiff’s duties, the Court’s decision makes sense; so does the Court’s reluctance to draw a clear line for future cases. (In concurring opinions, Justice Thomas suggested that churches should be able to decide for themselves who is a “minister” under the exemption – raising the specter of “called janitors;” while Justices Alito and Kagan more sensibly prefer looking at the functions served by an employee regardless of whether the word “minister” or any special “ordination” procedure is used. – But then the Courts would have to decide just what functions specifically count as “religious.”)

I remember once reading a discussion (on some site or listserve) among Missouri Synod Lutherans – the very denomination to which Hosanna-Tabor belongs – regarding the propriety of the modern tendency to label all sorts of church functions “ministries.” Some felt that this was in derogation of the importance of the pastoral office. On the other hand legal considerations were part of the mix also, a desire to immunize the church as much as possible against government intrusion.

Anyway, as I’ve said, given the facts of the case I am inclined to agree with the Court’s decision.

At the same time, it is a long-standing thought-experiment of mine – nothing more, I recognize the historical and cultural reasons why it would never be tried in reality – to try to imagine how we could get all the results we really want from the 1st Amendment without using the word “religion” at all. It has always seemed to me that the abuses we look to the religion clauses to prevent could be dealt with just as well under freedom of speech, press, association, equal protection, and the right to privacy. And what exactly makes an “establishment regarding religion” any worse than an official establishment regarding some secular political party or ideology, such as we have seen in the last century in the Communist countries for instance? My intent is not to restrict “freedom of religion” but to extend exactly the same freedom to activities and motivations we consider “secular.”

So how does this notion of mine apply to the Hosanna-Tabor case? Easily enough, I think. Instead of a “ministerial exemption,” why not just say that whenever people form an organization to promote any cause, they have to be allowed sufficient discretion to make sure their leaders and spokespeople are committed to sincerely representing it? PETA should be free in its employment practices, at least regarding leadership positions, to discriminate against carnivores and fur-wearers! How, I wonder, is this different from a church having the right to demand that its ministers be true exemplars of their faith?