News Release: Events, Religion and Ethics

Oct. 3,  2011

Religious Freedom Faces Great Challenges, Says Glendon

News Article ImageHarvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon speaking at a lecture hosted by Emory's Center for the Study of Law and Religion.

As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares this week to hear a case on whether a Michigan school run by a Lutheran church is subject to a federal law banning discrimination based on a disability, Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon, speaking recently at Emory University, raises a broad concern about religious freedom in America. Contrary to those who fear that the religious right is taking over and we are on the verge of a "faith-based" America, says Glendon, religion and religious freedom are actually the values in danger.

"What hangs in the balance is nothing less than whether religion will be a destabilizing force in our increasingly diverse society or whether religion could help to hold together the two halves of the divided soul of American democracy," says Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University and former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican. Glendon outlined her argument in a lecture hosted by Emory's Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR).

Religious people, groups and church-affiliated institutions are facing challenges on all fronts today, from non-discrimination lawsuits to a reduced influence in society, Glendon explains. "Is religious freedom becoming a lesser right, one that can be easily overridden by other rights, claims and interests?" she asks. 

Glendon cited three trends that are troubling:

An alarming increase in religious persecution around the world. Nearly 70 percent of the world's people live in countries where there are "high restrictions" on religious freedom, according to a recent international survey by The Pew Forum. "Not surprisingly, the brunt of these restrictions falls on religious minorities. Worldwide, 75 percent of victims of violent religious persecution are Christian," Glendon adds.

The erosion of conscience protection for religious individuals and institutions. Although the threats are much less dramatic in the United States and Western Europe, Glendon says religious freedom is still at risk from more subtle threats such as "restrictions on the autonomy of religious institutions and inroads on the rights of parents regarding the education of their children."

The reduction of the influence of religion in society. Disillusionment with organized religion is widespread, she says, and a growing "individualization of faith" is apparent in the United States and elsewhere, with more than 15 percent of Americans "declining to affiliate with any organized religion," and 24 to 33 percent describing themselves as "spiritual but not religious."

Glendon points out that this movement away from organized religion gives "short shrift" to worship communities and social settings where "religious beliefs and practices are generated, regenerated, nurtured and transmitted from one generation to the next."

Religion is not inherently divisive, she says. Rather, the political influence of religion often fosters democracy, reconciliation, peace and human rights, while religious values tend to encourage respect and concern for others, discourage consumerism and hedonism, and provide a legacy of justice and love. Religious groups offer tangible societal benefits as well, such as education, health care, childcare and employment.

She encourages religious believers and leaders to practice respect and tolerance, to promote the responsible exercise of religious freedom and to resist "divide-and conquer" strategies that, if successful, "could install secularism as the established religion of the United States."

America is a country torn between its love of individual freedom and its sense of belonging to a community for which we all have responsibility, she adds, but a society that aspires to be both "free and compassionate cannot afford to neglect the health of what some call the principal seedbeds of character and competence: families, religious groups and other communities of memory and mutual aid."

Glendon's lecture was the second of five in CSLR's When Law and Religion Meet Lecture Series 2011-2012, which focuses on critical questions creating battles in courtrooms, legislatures and places of worship. The lectures take place at Emory University School of Law, Tull Auditorium. Remaining lectures in the series include:

Jan. 25, 12:30 p.m.
John Witte, Jr., director of Emory's Center for the Study of Law and Religion: "Shari'a in the West? What Place for Religious Family Law in America and Other Western Democracies"

Feb. 8, 12:30 p.m.
Luke Timothy Johnson, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins: "Jesus and the Law of Marriage and Divorce"

March 21, 12:30 p.m.
Michael J. Perry, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law, Emory: "Freedom of Religion, Same-Sex Marriage and the Catholic Church"


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