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Politics and Religion Issues Not Over With One Veto

03/06/2014 12:51 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2014

Many sigh in relief believing the issue of religious liberty and LGBT rights is over with the veto of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer; however, deeper questions over the free exercise clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution, and how to be a diverse nation, remain. There is an old adage, "Don't talk about religion and politics in polite company." And certainly not around the family dinner table, especially the extended family dinner table. But perhaps we need to; perhaps we have to. Perhaps we can. Yes, religion and politics.

We need to talk about the nature of the issues themselves. In the Arizona case, some headlines read, "Anti LGBT Law Vetoed" while others proclaimed the opposite: "Freedom of Religion Law Vetoed."

Those very opposite interpretations of what happened tell us what is not over. And reasons for the governor's action probably had more to do with pressures from corporations on the possible impact on Arizona's economy and reputation.

What are the issues? The Arizona bill would have given business owners the right to refuse service to LGBT people and others on religious grounds.

Gov. Brewer, in remarks made when she announced the veto, said the legislation "does not address a specific or present concern related to religious liberty In Arizona," and that it was "broadly worded and could result in unintended and negative consequences."

So, what does the "free exercise" clause of Amendment 1 of the U.S. Constitution mean and what are its consequences? Through the centuries, and especially today, we debate less than our founders did the first clause, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."(However, disestablishment did occur only gradually over 50 years.) Even that needs our careful attention when there are some Christian denominations in this country that would want to make this a "Christian America." Many other Christian denominations support a diverse, open and pluralistic United States. The term "Christian" is not one umbrella term covering all. Therefore, banners and headlines such as "Christian Rights Trumps Religious Wrongs" and "Christians vs. Gays" are equally inadequate and erroneous.

And that connects directly to the opposite interpretations of the second clause of the First Amendment: "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." If indeed this country was formed to "promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity," (Preamble to the Constitution) There is and will continue to be debate about how private faith is to influence public life. The Preamble would make clear that private faith and religious bodies are to promote the common good, the common welfare. The 13th and 14th Amendments promised freedom and rights for slaves, and the 15th and 19th say suffrage shall not be denied on account of race, color, previous condition of servitude or on account of sex. But these rights, too, need continually to be expanded and renewed.

So how do we balance freedom of religious expression with non-discrimination? One, by realizing the word is "exercise" not just "expression." We are guaranteed freedom of worship, all of us. And the freedom to exercise my religion means the freedom of my neighbors to exercise theirs. In a participatory democracy, we are called to respectfully work for the common welfare of all. That's complex to be sure. It includes our making laws that protect my neighbors' safety, such as not driving under the influence of alcohol. (My own religious values may or may not include refraining from the use of alcohol.)

The term "separation of church and state" are indeed not in the Constitution, but Thomas Jefferson did pen them in another document and we have used them ever since. That could mean "structural separation" involving cutting legal and systemic ties. "Absolute separation" means one never influences the other. "Supportive separation" acknowledges the need for political separation, but allows for aid to all religions, without discrimination. I and my church body favor "institutional separation" with "functional interaction," so that we do not seek to impose our beliefs on others, but do work for the welfare and justice of all.

The veto in Arizona is not "over." The issues continue. There were some positive effects. Similar bills pending, or being considered in other state legislatures, within a few days were pulled back. But these and other initiatives will reappear. The Affordable Care Act. Contraception. The rights of Muslims. Land rights. Education. What others?

Yes, conversations about politics and religion belong together. We dare not leave the formation of legislation to only a few. It's ok to talk about this around the dinner table, and in each of our varied faith communities around this nation and to have all of our voices heard before there is even a need for a veto.

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