Religious liberty and orthodoxy

Posted: Nov 23, 2001 12:00 AM
Nobody understands the importance of religious liberty more than Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer. For 15 dark weeks, Dayna and Heather were locked in a Taliban jail, facing possible execution. Their alleged crime? Trying to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Their dramatic nighttime rescue after a frightening forced retreat from Kabul with fleeing Taliban forces should be the stuff of Hollywood legend. In the end, U.S. military helicopters were able to find the two women (and six other Western aid workers) only after quick-thinking Heather suggested using their Taliban-imposed burqas to light a bonfire. Some others would perhaps have only cursed the darkness.

While thankfully in the United States we do not have to face such severe threats to religious liberty, other, subtler forms of intolerance for religious diversity still surface from time to time.

This year for example, the American Psychological Association proposed to strip religious colleges and universities with psychology programs of their accreditation unless they agreed to hire and admit professors, administrators, board members and students of all faiths on an equal basis. Religious colleges could keep their accreditation, in other words, only if they essentially transformed themselves into secular schools. Nice, huh?

Why would anyone want to do that? According to Rhea Farberman, an APA spokesman interviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Education in June, some members worried that the clause (known as Footnote 4) might be used to discriminate against gay and lesbian students. Judith M. Glassgold, a member of the APA's committee on lesbian, gay and bisexual concerns and a visiting faculty member at Rutgers University graduate school of psychology, urged deleting Footnote 4 because "it creates confusion and a perception that it is OK to discriminate against gays and lesbians." The student conduct codes at some evangelical Christian universities (which forbid nonmarital sex), she maintained, were invasive and punitive and ought to be changed.

Well, Professor Glassgold is entitled to her opinions, of course, but is she entitled to make her opinions the law of academia? The wheels seemed greased for dramatic new change, imposing a new uniformity of opinion on religious schools in the name (of course) of diversity.

Enter the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty -- not quite the U.S. Special Forces perhaps -- which conducted a highly sophisticated six-month campaign to persuade the APA that killing Footnote 4 would be a big mistake.

How big? The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty defends the rights of all Americans of whatever creed to have and express their religious views, both individually and communally. The net effect of removing the accreditation of religious colleges' psychology departments, the Becket Fund argued, would not be to increase diversity but to use the APA's delegated power from the federal government to discriminate against schools with religious viewpoints. A major no-no, in other words, from a constitutional perspective. For the U.S. government to delegate accreditation decisions to an organization that does not respect religious liberty would be a blatant violation of the First Amendment. The APA would have to choose between killing Footnote 4 and keeping its accreditation powers.

Surprise! The APA beat a quick retreat. At its November meeting, the Committee on Accreditation unanimously voted to retain Footnote 4 and the respect for religious schools it provides. In the statement announcing its decision, the APA noted "recent Supreme Court decisions that show an increased deference to First Amendment interests over anti-discrimination statutes and the Committee's role as an accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education."

Proving that even in America, the price of religious liberty, no less than any other kind, is eternal vigilance. Good thing for us, the Becket Fund is at post.