General Session: Hot Topics Involving Religion in American Public Life: The Future of Faith-based Partnerships, Reconciling Religion and Other Civil Rights and More — Carlson-Thies, Rogers, and Dushku

ICLRS Associate Director Gary Doxey moderated the Thursday afternoon general session, “Hot Topics Involving Religion in American Public Life: The Future of Faith-based Partnerships, Reconciling Religion, and Other Civil Rights and More”. 

Stanley Carlson-Thies, Founder and Senior Director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, spoke on “Creating a Pluralist Government Rules Suitable for a Diverse Society”. He feels that pluralism is the way to protect Civil Rights and Religious Freedom and feel like both “sides” win.

He made four points concerning the topic of Pluralism:

1.  A Civil Rights/Anti-Discrimination Model is not the only solution, and is not necessarily the right solution. 
2.  Conflicts about civil rights versus religious freedom are often not about Religion or LBGTQ issues, but about competing world views. Each party often has legitimate concerns and beliefs that can conflict with one another, but that doesn’t make compromise impossible.
3.  The religious freedom that needs to be protected is not only individual, but institutional as well. The law must protect organizations in order to give individuals actual freedom by letting them join organizations that operate the way they want them to. 
4.  Pluralism needs to be a distinctive. A public policy that allows institutions to be distinctive is a pluralist ideal and would allow our distinctive and diverse population to live their life the way they choose. 

He suggested two ways to ease problems that arise when we allow a pluralist society:

1.  A faith-based solution: No one can be turned away based on faith and/or the government cannot fund anything religiously related.
2.  Funding by the government that funds your choice of a religion and the services they provide.


Melissa Rogers, Nonresident Senior Fellow in Governance, Brookings Institution, and former Executive Director, White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, spoke on “Consensus and Conflict on Contemporary Religious Freedom Issues”

She identified areas of consensus and areas of conflict:

1. Partnerships between faith-based organizations and the government

  • In recent years, we’ve been able to find common ground on an increasing number of issues related to government partnerships with faith-based organizations. For example, during the Obama administration, a diverse Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships recommended that new protections be established for the religious liberty rights of social service beneficiaries, and the Obama administration put those protections in place.
  • With its recent decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court came to a consensus on an issue related to access to financial aid for faith-based institutions.  The Court said that faith-based organizations cannot be expressly excluded from certain public benefits simply because of their religious character.  The precise scope of this decision is unclear, however, and those issues will now be litigated in the lower courts. 

2. Clashes involving religious freedom and other civil rights

  • These clashes include debates over the application of laws, legislation and regulations prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity to religious entities. 
  • There have been efforts at the state and federal levels to find compromises on issues like these. At least at the federal level, however, it is not clear that these efforts will be able to move past certain sticking points. Nevertheless, these conversations have the potential to increase understanding and decrease polarization. 

3.  Equal Rights to Religious Freedom

  • Rogers concluded that while there are many areas of conflict, she was grateful for continuing consensus around certain fundamental principles, including the bedrock principal that all faiths are equal under our Constitution and the notion that people should not be barred from entering our country simply because of their faith.  Even so, today some Americans cannot attend their house of worship or wear religious garb without fear.  
  • Thus, Rogers expressed her hope that communities of all faiths and none would speak out with one voice on these issues.  She concluded by urging that we come together across parties, faiths and beliefs to defeat hatred and bigotry in all of its forms and to affirm religious freedom for all people.


Alexander Dushku, Shareholder, Kirton/McConkie spoke on “In Defense of the Right to Gather”. He made the following points:

1.  Without protecting the right to gather, no compromise can ever be made. Once that right is absolutely confirmed, we have great hope for moving forward without religious freedom being compromised. We live in an age of individual secularism, where many of the traditional social constraints are gone due to an overall decrease in the religiosity of people. But there is an overriding consensus that who you are can never stand in the way of who other people are. 

2.  Americans generally don’t want to suppress Religious Freedom or LGBTQ rights, they want a peaceful solution, but often those seem at odds with each other. The risks are:

  • Secularists will succeed in using the government to get rid of religious freedom
  • Secularists will win in an ugly way – by becoming what they oppose – intolerant and cruel to those who believe differently. They will win the culture war, but lose cultural peace. 

Dushku suggested four keys for fairness for all/secularism:

1.  Begin with both sides sitting and talking with one another, understanding real viewpoints from real people.
2.  Both sides must be willing to recognize fairness for both sides and want fairness for both sides.
3.  Be realistic about what is a core issue and right; don’t try to win every battle.
4.  When conflicts arise that are outside of the core rights, both sides need to seek fairness and reach a reasonable compromise. 

There are important points for the both the right and the left to consider. 

Points for the Right to consider:

1.  Don’t trivialize LGBTQ discrimination. A compromise does not equate to betraying your religion.
2.  Realize that people can have different views on marriage and sexuality, and that does not make them bad or wrong. 

Points for the Left to consider:

1.  Tolerate all views the same way you want the Right to.
2.  Don’t call the Right bigots or homophobes for their deeply held religious beliefs. 

  • Don’t think that time will just make religious ideals disappear or make religions more “progressive” due to social pressure.
  • A religion’s “self-definition” does not equate to discrimination.