07/09/2014 01:33 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2014

A Grandmother on "Debts," "Trespasses" and Flipping "Religious Freedom" on its Head


"No! 'Trespasses'!"

In Miss Challis' fifth grade, we absolutist 10 year-olds argued all year about which to use when we recited the Lord's Prayer each morning. The Baptists knew it had to be "debts," because that was the way it was. We Methodists were equally adamant that "trespasses" was the way it had to be because that is what we were taught. It never occurred to us to each say what we knew and not argue. Most of us weren't even aware that Catholics (then) said the same prayer in Latin and stopped before our ending. Or consider that Henry, our one Jewish classmate, must have felt excluded.

Although such childhood squabbles are just that, current discussions roiling the United States have led me to see them in a larger context: perhaps precursors of the my way religiosity we see more broadly -- but particularly focused in Hobby Lobby and the cases following from it.

At Phelps Elementary in Springfield, Missouri, in 1944, classes began with prayer. Then the Pledge of Allegiance -- without "under God," which, as far as we knew, was what the Founders intended. "Under God" came much later; my 80 year-old tongue still stumbles.

In American history, we learned that the first settlers risked crossing the Atlantic to escape religious persecution and to worship according to their own beliefs without an established church making the rules. We were not entirely sure about what 'established church' meant but assumed something like 'no one could boss you about religion.' President Roosevelt, meanwhile, spoke about freedom of worship, along with speech and from want and fear, all pictured in a Norman Rockwell world.

So I began to understand that religious freedom, a bedrock of American society, indeed means no bossing anyone about religious beliefs -- not the government, not faith communities, not individuals and, looking at the present issue, not their corporations.

When I was in school, the emphasis was on Protestant Puritanism, an over-simplified view of our "Christian" beginnings still widely held. Important parts of our broader history were missing. We learned little about the intolerance and imposition of belief dominating many colonies or that Quakers and Baptists were persecuted. Nor the business reasons for colonies like Virginia. Or that a half-century before Jamestown, Spanish Catholics settled in Florida and the southwest. Or that one of the country's oldest Jewish congregations, in Newport, Rhode Island, was founded in 1658. We had no idea that many slaves, the dominant population of the colonial south, brought their Muslim faith from Africa and covertly observed Ramadan, the Islamic fasting month. Later -- high school civics? -- I learned that the Constitution's first Amendment insures the separation of church and state and provides for individual free exercise of religion.

In 1944, somewhere in Springfield there must have been Catholics, synagogues and Negro churches and schools. But we were isolated from them. Ours -- then, there -- was effectively a white Protestant bubble.

Seventy years later, I live outside Washington, an area that reflects our democracy and our many faiths at their most visibly pluralistic. When we moved here 60 years ago, however, it was a sleepy, segregated southern town. Thus, this area also embodies the demographic shifts and social struggles in the United States, perhaps more than many places or perhaps just differently. While some Americans feel threatened by these changes, living enmeshed in this ethnic and religious diversity is one of the things we most appreciate about our country.

Our grandson's elementary schoolmates spoke 63 languages. Driving to our favorite Chinese restaurant, we pass the oldest Jewish congregation in Alexandria and an Episcopal seminary, both predating the Civil War. Also a Catholic church and school, a well-established mosque, at least eight different denominations of Protestant churches from mainstream to Pentecostal -- several with notices for services in Korean, Tagalog, Spanish, Vietnamese or for the deaf. And a house that serves as a Vietnamese Buddhist temple, plus signs pointing to Greek and Russian orthodox churches. Down Richmond Highway, a Quaker meetinghouse predates Fort Belvoir, where it still sits. Our condo's Laotian staff goes to their own Buddhist temple. Elsewhere there are other Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh places of worship. On a clear day, we see the glint off of Maroni topping the Mormon Temple across town. Periodically, various school districts discuss how best to handle absences for Yom Kippur or Idul Fitr in addition to the Christmas holidays.

Our community is a microcosm of the same diversity of young, old, gay, straight, many ethnicities, languages and religious beliefs or no belief at all. Not unlike my fifth-grade "debt" "trespass" argument, the cars in the parking lot sport bumper stickers reflecting a more complicated range of beliefs about politics, civil rights, religious freedom and acting on conscience articulated in America's pluralistic society:

"God is Pro-Life" "Pro-Child, Pro-Family, Pro-Choice" "Adam and Eve Not Adam and Steve" "Don't Believe in Gay Marriage? Don't Marry a Gay. Problem Solved"

Despite America's self-definition as a democracy of people created equal and free to worship (or not) as we believe, our larger tensions melding civil rights, religious freedom and acts of conscience are not new: Think slavery, abolition, the Civil War, segregation, Jim Crow, states rights, civil rights, exclusionary laws, and later, Women's Lib, LGBT rights and all too prevalent but less visible forms of discrimination. Likewise, the Hobby Lobby case and its fallout are rooted in particular groups' certainty about what God intends and consequently their "religious freedom" to act on it. (Whether the Bible or science support their contention is a valid question but beside the point. They believe it.)

One of the advantages of old bones and long memory is witnessing, and sometimes participating in, the struggles for social change over two-thirds of a century. And also knowing first hand the conflicting beliefs and roles people of faith and conscience played in them. As a nation we forget, or never really learn about, these struggles at our peril.

While not unique, my family believed in racial equality and inter-religious tolerance ("God created us equal in his sight"), so I grew up that way. As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, friends with and without religious affiliations joined the African American-led struggle. A lawyer friend persuaded federal courts to overturn Virginia's Massive Resistance laws. My mother and an interracial delegation from Church Women United lobbied for school integration in Richmond. My husband and I worked on a church-organized drive supporting Open Housing laws.

We were relieved when the Supreme Court, in Griswold, reversed Connecticut's statute prohibiting any person from using drugs or other articles to prevent conception. And welcomed Loving vs. Virginia, which overturned religious scruples and state law, making interracial marriage legal.

This past week -- coincidental to the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision -- we honored the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, that act also ended unequal voter registration requirements and racial segregation. Further, it defined public accommodations and the right of equal access to them, ending "whites only" signs by the water fountains and the segregated lunch counters, bakeries, hotels and other businesses of my Southern childhood. Public entities were bound to abide by the law and, despite their owner's religious principles, could not discriminate against individuals or groups of people and stay open.

The struggle was not simple or comfortable. Those who felt these changes infringed on their rights argued: "You can't legislate morality." Certainly, not at a personal level, then or now. But those struggles and the resulting laws established public guarantees of equal rights, focused on race but equally applicable to religion. While we still grapple with these issues, the Civil Rights Law changed acceptable public morality.

In the intervening years, the Supreme Court carefully balanced individual religious liberty and resulting public action. In 1968, after an owner who believed the Bible justified segregation brought suit, the Court ruled he had to desegregate his restaurant chain. Later, a federal appeals court ruled that a Christian school in California could not withhold health benefits from their married female employees.

Here we go again. In Hobby Lobby the nominal issue may be contraception and women's rights to make their own health decisions, which I believe in, as important as that is. The more fundamental question, however, is the definition of religious freedom and the kind of society we want as a nation. From this perspective, the current legal battles cast as protecting "religious freedom" and "acts of conscience" -- be it opposition to same sex marriage, allowing businesses to refuse service to various groups they deem acting contrary to God's law, exempting employers with "deeply held religious beliefs" from including contraception in their employee health insurance or a Christian college from even signing papers that would accommodate their opposition to similar health insurance -- flip my long-held understanding of religious freedom on its head.

The issue isn't personal beliefs or what an individual or a religious group preaches or practices. Those are constitutionally protected. We should be able to differ respectfully and let it go. In a plural democracy, the issues are whether an individual or group claiming "freedom of religion" may impose their beliefs on others and whether that individual's or groups' values and beliefs translate into "rights" the public entities they own or run may act on.

In their Hobby Lobby ruling, it seems to me, the majority of the Supreme Court reworked a longstanding balance between religious liberty and the rule of law. In so doing, they effectively re-established discrimination by giving preference to owners' beliefs rather than the public's or their employees', thus sanctioning trespass, or, more accurately, trespass against. For my grandchildren, this grandmother will continue to fight such discrimination. Join me. Boycott. Write letters. Speak out.