Life in a secular democracy can be frustrating. In our country, we disagree on almost everything. Our lack of agreement is a sign of the health of our democracy. Freedom is disruptive. The puzzling complexity of our secular world deserves to be celebrated.
Consider the controversy over an LGBTQ pride club at Fresno Pacific University. Fresno Pacific is a Christian school. He rejected a request to create a student pride club. University president Joseph Jones explained that the creation of a pride club “was not in line with the university’s confession of faith.”
The Fresno Pacific Confession of Faith says, “God instituted marriage as a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman for the purpose of companionship, encouragement, sexual intimacy, and procreation. Fresno Pacific is affiliated with Mennonite Brethren Church, a church opposed to homosexuality and extramarital sex.
As a religious institution, Fresno Pacific enjoys an exemption from Title IX, the law purported to prohibit sex discrimination. The Ministry of Education explains that “Title IX does not apply to an educational establishment controlled by a religious organization insofar as the application of Title IX would be incompatible with the religious principles of the organization”.
All this surprised the student journalists who wrote about it in the Fresno Pacific school newspaper. An important part of this story is about courageous student journalism. The good news is that the student journalists at Fresno Pacific were free to continue this story.
Another part of the story is that the national Campus Pride organization lists Fresno Pacific on its website as one of the “most dangerous and dangerous campuses for LGBTQ youth.” Campus Pride is free to publish its list. Students can complain. And the campus will likely continue with its policies.
The First Amendment is the touchstone here. It guarantees religious freedom as well as freedom of expression, freedom of the press, as well as the right to assemble and petition the government. In the United States, religious organizations have a significant degree of freedom. Journalists are free to report on these things. Ordinary citizens are free to cheer or make fun of rallies in the streets. And if you want to change the law, you can talk to your representative in Congress.
The Fresno Pacific affair is the kind of thing that happens in secular democracies. The story undoubtedly involves anxiety and acrimony for those directly involved. There will be disagreements over what should happen next. But history reminds us that the First Amendment is alive and well in our country.
The freedoms listed in the First Amendment give rise to controversies that span the political spectrum. Wherever your sympathies lie, you are bound to be outraged and offended by someone in a world organized under the First Amendment.
On the one hand, anti-vax and anti-mask protesters are making First Amendment calls and disrupting school board meetings. Some Trumpians have celebrated the January 6 protests, linking them to the type of assembly protected by the First Amendment. This shows us an important limitation. You can come together and protest. But violence is not protected.
On the other hand, LGBTQ people have the right to speak out against Fresno Pacific. And in our world, religion is strictly regulated in public schools. An interesting recent case involves a coach at a Washington state high school who was fired for leading his players in prayer. Among the issues raised in this case is an atheist family who complained that the coach had not given their son sufficient playing time because he refused to pray.
And so on. There will always be a lot of controversy to keep lawyers busy and critics buzz.
Political philosopher Robert Nozick once said that “freedom disrupts patterns”. Let us add that freedom also disturbs social harmony and peace of mind.
Some may prefer a world where everyone conforms and obeys. But it’s not America. Thomas Jefferson once said, “I would rather be exposed to the disadvantages of too much freedom than of those who take too little. And if you don’t agree, in our country you are free to say so.
Andrew Fiala is professor of philosophy and director of the Fresno State Center for Ethics. Contact him: [email protected]