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Religious Diversity: Talking in the Shadow of the Liberty Bell

The national dialogue on religious law issues often generates more heat than light. In public debate, speakers stand on a soapbox shouting and cheer-leading their own side.Voices get shrill and invective flies about the “other side.” Let’s take one common example. Free exercise in the public schools touches two passions—people’s religion and their children. And it triggers protective feelings because of deep fears.

Not surprisingly, these topics get hot, and the court decisions on the subject bears that out. By definition, disputes that create a published legal opinion are in the minority, but they are disheartening. The various parties act in ways that make you wonder, “What were they thinking?” What people try to do, what school administrators try to prevent or promote, how people speak to each other—it seems that sweet reason rarely prevails until the court rules (and sometimes not then).

But in this area, as in many others, people are on a bell curve.1 Most people fall in the arched middle of the bell. On the flattened right of the curve and the flattened left of the curve fall the more isolated (but generally louder and shriller) voices. We have no real hope of shouting across the distances between the ends of the curve. No one there is being quiet enough to listen anyway.

But what about the middle, where most of us congregate? The fact is that much law in this area is solidly established. Yes, students can pray. No, teachers can’t share their faith in the classroom in most contexts. There are also gray areas that haven’t been established, and will likely be sooner or later.

Before we rush to court to decide those areas—and pay litigators like me fabulous sums of money—could we try listening? The reason people care desperately about these issues isn’t really their passion for the Constitution. Some of us do love constitutional law for its own sake and meet in Friday clubs to discuss U.S. Supreme Court decisions. That is not most of us.

The reason most people care about these issues is because of their fears. We can never problem-solve meaningfully between groups without understanding those fears. The fear of evangelicals that their faith will be pushed completely out of the public square. The fear of Jews—almost built into their DNA—that exclusion and isolation will lead to persecution and violence as they have so often. The fear of Catholics that they will be forced to violate their conscience. The fear of atheists that their children will be swept away on an inexorable religious tide.

The first step is to listen to each others’ stories with courtesy and attention. Really listen. And then think about solutions that address the fears within the boundaries of the law.  

Talk to each other in the shadow of the bell curve. That’s why we have liberty in this country. Or you could just pay me.

1Thanks to my friend Kristy Milligan of Citizens Project for the metaphor of the bell curve.
Featured image: "libertybell2" from morgueFile.
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