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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Discrimination by Religious Organizations

Over at Lessig, Ian Ayres discusses how he and others* have tried to respond to their church's policy of not marrying same-sex couples.  Ayres notes that "the Bishop in short order called us on the carpet saying that Canon law did not allow same-sex marriage. He forbade us from ending the discrimination by religiously marrying same-sex couples."

Ayres discusses his impulse to "warn people" about the Episcopal church's policy, and his initial thought -- never carried through -- to sign a statement reading "I acknowledge that I am choosing to associate with a church that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation."

I can understand Ayres's impulse.  However, I'm uncomfortable with the way that Ayres's analysis seems to treat the relationship with a church like any other relationship with an organization.

I'm not convinced that it makes sense to treat religious organizations the same as other entities, such as employers, retailers, or government agencies.  And I think that it's quite disingenuous for liberal academics to act as if there is no difference between religious and other organizations.  (Ayres' post falls somewhat into this category, and I've seen the point argued more strongly elsewhere).

The fact is that for many Americans, religious organizations are not simply another type of private actor or organization.  Rather, they are a means of interacting with a divine being.  They are a link to God. 

This can lead to some important ways in which discrimination by religious organizations is viewed differently by members of those organizations than discrimination by other entities. 

The first major difference is that religious organizations probably have much more captive audiences.  Because they often claim unique connections to the divine, religious organizations may not be, for their believers, as susceptible to substitution as other organizations.  If I disagree with the social policies of Coca-cola, I can drink Pepsi instead of Coke.  If I disagree with the social policies of my employer, I may be able to get another job.  But if I'm convinced that the only way to please God is through adherence to a particular religion, I cannot simply replace that religion with a substitute entity.  I may have some limited forum-shopping available, such as switching parishes or congregations or synagogues, but if I'm convinced that some particular faith -- Mormonism or Episcopalianism or Orthodox Judaism or whatever else -- is required for my spiritual well-being, I can't simply decide to switch faiths.

A second major difference is that many religious organizations base their stated policies on their interpretation of God's will.  Thus, policies of religious organizations may be much less susceptible to change than similar policies would be in other groups.  If Coca-Cola or IBM or General Motors has a policy with which its customers disagree, they can lobby against that policy, confident that it comes from no higher original source than the Board of Directors of the company.

There may be much less practical ability to change church policies.  If a particular policy is viewed as established by a reading of the Bible, or by revelation from God, members may be severely constrained in their ability to say "this policy ought to change." 

Of course, not every church is based on ecclesiastical principles of this sort.  The ability of any church member to suggest change undoubtedly varies from denomination to denomination and from locale to locale.  However, the ability of any particular church member or members to seek change on broad social issues like marriage is almost certain to involve complicated questions in areas such as ecclesiology and scriptural hermeneutics and exegesis, that will differ significantly between denominations.

The combination of these two factors -- the relatively low substitutability of religious belief sets and the relative constraints on member action that may be imposed by differing ecclesiastical structures and beliefs -- means that the problem of discrimination by religious organizations may be both unusually sensitive and unusually resistant to member pressures.

Of course, there may still be good reasons to seek social changes from within religious organizations.  But any such efforts must start from a point that recognizes, rather than avoids, the distinctive nature of religious organizations.


*UPDATE:  A reader points out that Ayres's reference to "Jennifer" is actually ambiguous as used in his post -- it is not clear whether he refers to his co-blogger and partner Jennifer Gerarda Brown, or to Ayres's sister who he mentions earlier in his post.  Since the name is ambiguous, I've changed my original sentence (I had originally assumed he was talking about his partner).  (Back to Top)

Posted by Kaimi Wenger on June 7, 2005 at 07:26 PM in Religion | Permalink


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I think Ayres' warning is more effectively directed at the individual members than the institutional church for the reasons you state.

If a person cannot replace a religion with a substitute entity as long as the member is convinced is that the only way to please God is through adherence to that religion, the question becomes what does it take to change one's convictions about what pleases God. To some extent I think this must be based on the effect of the church's beliefs and practices in the world. If the beliefs lead to practices that offend one's moral sense, then a person might begin to question whether that belief is in fact one commanded by or pleasing to God. If not, then one may well decide to change religions.

Posted by: Kevin Withers | Jun 8, 2005 10:15:40 AM

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