BY PAUL MEZZINA
Kevin “Seamus” Hasson, founder and president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, discussed his new book, “The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America,” with 30 students on Wednesday, March 22. In a speech sponsored by the Federalist Society and the Society for Law, Life, and Religion, Hasson described how the debate over religion in public life has come to be dominated by two sets of extremists, whom he calls the Pilgrims and the Park Rangers.
The Pilgrims are those who want the public square to feature their beliefs while excluding others’. The original Pilgrims, Hasson explained, came to America in search of, not religious freedom, but religious purity and an environment in which they could “outlaw everything except the truth.” They established an official church, denied non-believers the right to vote, and banned the public celebration of Christmas, a holiday that conflicted with their beliefs.
The Park Rangers, on the other hand, believe that all religion belongs in private. By way of illustration, Hasson recounted the tale of a parking barrier abandoned in San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden in 1989. Locals complained that the barrier clashed with the otherwise ordered nature of the garden, but the park authorities ignored requests that it be removed-until a Hindu group decided that the barrier was a manifestation of the god Shiva and commenced making offerings to it. When the authorities learned of this, they immediately removed the barrier.
When government is “ubiquitously present” in cultural activities, Hasson maintained, governmental silence on religious matters is not neutrality; rather, it tacitly supports the Park Rangers’ view of religion as a quintessentially private activity. “We don’t do the most important things in life in private,” Hasson declared; true religious liberty must include “a right to seek, a right to embrace, and a right to express.” Nor, he said, should government facilitate modern-day Pilgrims’ desire to suppress minority religions. Instead, the public square should be available to all citizens who wish to express their religious views in a non-coercive manner.
Hasson advocated a narrower construction of the Establishment Clause, which he said is a “structural provision” mandating federal neutrality with respect to state establishments of religion and should never have been incorporated against the states. At the same time, he argued for a broader interpretation of the Free Exercise Clause to maximize individual freedom of conscience. He suggested that the Supreme Court overrule Employment Division v. Smith, which held that individuals have no right to perform religious acts that are proscribed by a facially neutral law, and instead mandate exemptions from generally applicable laws when they conflict with apparently genuine religious beliefs. Tidiness in law enforcement, he said, should be subordinate to respect for conscience.