WashU Expert: SCOTUS ruling hints at why religious freedom means living with views we don’t like

The United States Supreme Court ruled June 21 that Maine can’t exclude religious schools from a state tuition program aimed at rural communities without public secondary schools.

While the ruling is unsurprising given the court’s recent decisions around freedom of religion, some of the rhetoric around the case misrepresents the role of constitutional protections for religion in a pluralistic society, said an expert on law and religion at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Religious freedom does not mean harmony,” said John Inazu, the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law & Religion. “Religious freedom means living with views we don’t like and generally available funding means funding views we don’t like.”

“The deep divisions in our pluralistic society inevitably produce strife, but they also allow us to pursue different beliefs and values, and to live those out in different communities,” said Inazu, author of “Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference.”

“The First Amendment presumes a willingness to endure the resulting strife rather than overcome it,” he said.

“The wide range of normative visions and curricular emphases among this country’s private schools means that state funding supports visions and viewpoints that we don’t like, that we find harmful to society, and that we believe are antithetical to the common good,” Inazu said. “And of course, we disagree about which of these schools are harmful and which are beneficial.”

The fundamental question in cases like the Maine case, Inazu said, is when the government offers a generally available funding program, must it fund all viewpoints, including religious ones?

Inazu thinks it does.

“I suggest that public forum principles should govern funding schemes like the benefit provided to charitable organizations through federal tax-exempt status,” he said. “These principles should also govern a benefits program like the one at issue in this case. In a pluralistic society in which we live out deep and irreconcilable differences, it doesn’t make sense to exclude from generally available resources the groups and viewpoints that we don’t like.”

To read Inazu’s full comments, visit his blog.