Media & Ethics

Religion & The Press

How Much Freedom?

Religion accounts for 20 percent of all hate crimes in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Hatewatch” report
Hatewatch Religion accounts for 20 percent of all hate crimes in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Hatewatch” report.

You’re totally on board with “religious freedom,” right? Me too. Most people are. But there’s a glitch. An overabundance of religious liberty for some people (and even companies) could mean less liberty for, well, you.

That conundrum gets really sticky when you try to define “religious freedom.” Separately, we more or less know what “religious” and “freedom” mean. Together, we think we know—but do we?

Example: In many states, legislators are furiously scribbling bills under the rubric of “religious freedom” or “religious liberty.” Are these proposed laws really about liberty or about discrimination? They stem from decades of legislation and judicial actions that wrestled over the “free exercise” of religion in the First Amendment. That came to a head with the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case involving Hobby Lobby stores, in which the owners argued successfully that based on their religious beliefs they should be exempted from some provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

As many legal scholars concluded, the Supreme Court had ventured into entirely new areas. Most noticeably, this was the first time that “religious freedom” had been expanded to include a for-profit company, albeit only of the privately held variety. Considering that many of the largest U.S. companies are privately held, they have been sent a corporatizing godsend, so to speak, from the justices, hallelujah.

The spinoff of the Hobby Lobby decision in some states was to assert that companies could refuse service to customers who offended the owners’ religious convictions. Could a baker, for example, balk at creating a wedding cake with two male figurines for a gay couple? Possibly.

In some states—particularly in the South—there were arguments, however unlikely, that non-whites could be refused service because store owners’ religious convictions shunned mixing races in commercial establishments. Yes, bigotry is part of some people’s creed. After all, detestable groups as varied as the Ku Klux Klan and Al-Qaeda cite their versions of spirituality to justify racial and religious hatred, and to proclaim their God-given missions of murder.

The more you think about this, the greater the headaches. Certainly, no (fair-minded) person should expect a government to force a kosher deli or a halal restaurant to serve ham. Some commercial enterprises are proud that they reflect their owners’ admirable religious ethics. Examples include firms whose owners are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Scientologist.

Those positive affirmations of a person’s religion are one thing. But does someone else’s “religious liberty” include denying rights to another individual—or, an entire ethnic, racial, religious or sexual-identity group? That brings us back to the question: What is “religious freedom?”

Tolerance The Founding Fathers put a bit of spin into the First Amendment when they combined freedom of press and speech with freedom of religion.

There are actually entire movements in America that want to create theocracies. A very influential group among some denominations—and many politicians—is called Christian Reconstruction. It advocates an Old Testament theocracy complete with stoning for capital punishment. One of its leaders, Gary North, had this rather frightening musing: “We must use the doctrine of religious liberty … until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”

Using “religious liberty” to destroy “religious liberty”—not likely what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they crafted the First Amendment. Keep in mind that North believes the “enemies of God” include Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons, Scientologists, Unitarians and most other faiths.

All religions and their sub-sects believe they have some unique truth. That’s part of their identity. Some religious groups—whether the Taliban or Christian fundamentalists—seek to impose their “truth” on everyone else, whether by totalitarian laws or the sword or both. Fortunately, most religions are tolerant of other faiths—some, such as Scientology, warmly embrace the broad spectrum of religious thought.

With such tolerance in mind, the Founding Fathers put a bit of spin into the First Amendment when they combined freedom of press and speech with freedom of religion. The novel idea at the time was to extricate government from religion—by putting the kibosh on a “state religion” and by deterring officials’ power to impinge on citizens’ “free exercise” of beliefs.

At the same time, press and speech were to be largely unfettered. That creates this collision of liberties: Is it OK to use the protection of one constitutional right (the press or speech) to disparage those who are protected by an equally sacrosanct right (religion)? The answer is an uncomfortable “yes.”

After the January 2015 terrorist attack against the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which had published content highly offensive to Muslims, Pope Francis eloquently addressed the tension between religious and press freedoms by saying, “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others.” He added, “One cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one’s own religion—that is, in the name of God. To kill in the name of God is an aberration.”

Scientology is one of many—most—religions to suffer from bigotry at some point in their history. Religious bigotry ranges from small slights to official disapproval of some faiths, to the tragedy of religious bloodshed, to the horrors of the Holocaust. The Pew Research Center calculates that 75 percent of the world’s population lives in nations that restrict or discriminate against various religions.

Here in America—a land where religious freedom was enshrined in our founding documents—there has often been suspicion, hostility and violence against minority religions. The Mormons’ Joseph Smith was martyred. Catholicism, the faith of many discriminated-against immigrant groups, has often been targeted; yet it was a priest, the infamous Father Charles Coughlin, who spewed anti-Semitic slanders onto radio airwaves in the 1920s and ’30s, even defending Nazi atrocities. Anti-Semitism still emerges from the slime of American extremism; indeed, in 2002 I wrote articles that uncovered entrenched bias against Jewish professors at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

The mainstream media, once the arbiters of values in society, have all but been vaporized in the digital storm that began in the 1990s. With the advent of the internet, bigots and cranks have found a huge megaphone to spew their venom.

Since the fall of communism, and especially in post-9/11 America, Islam has been the focus of increasing numbers of attacks. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), anti-Muslim hate crimes soared 67 percent in 2015.

And, religion accounts for 20 percent of all hate crimes in the United States, according to the SPLC’s “Hatewatch” report.

Behind much of that hate are media—either as echo chambers for bigoted blathering, or as actual generators of racial and religious vitriol. The presidential campaign press coverage—24-hour news cycles routinely focused on the extreme, and seldom on real issues—demonized ethnicities and religions.

The mainstream media, once the arbiters of values in society, have all but been vaporized in the digital storm that began in the 1990s. With the advent of the internet, bigots and cranks have found a huge megaphone to spew their venom.

The Church of Scientology has seen its own share of bigots and cranks on mendacious media rampages fueled by hatred. One for one, specious “noble” causes disintegrate to reveal motivations of money and ratings—much less the sources themselves as documented criminals, spouse abusers, perjurers and worse.

How to deal with such religious bigotry? The best response is truth. The Church of Scientology has just released two new tools to further that goal.” is a website that gives a broad explanation of what Scientology is all about. In addition to presenting the history, beliefs and expansion of Scientology—the only major new religion to be founded in the 20th century and now flourishing in the 21st—the website includes academic studies from a dozen respected scholars. One example: “Apart from individual salvation,” Harri Heino, a theology professor at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, wrote in “Scientology: Its True Nature,” “Scientology sees it as its task to clean up our whole planet and create a civilization where there is no irrationality, criminality or wars.” From far away Finland, Professor Heino gets right what so many ostensible journalists miss.

The second tool is a new publication, What Is Freedom of Religion? Know Your Rights, available through as a downloadable booklet. Already being widely put to use by educators, journalists, nonprofit groups and officials, the booklet tracks the trends in religious freedom, explains the rights to which all people are entitled and provides sound guidelines for anyone in either the public or private sector.

“There is no question that the media—all forms of the press, including print, audiovisual and electronic media—constitute a major cause for high social hostility targeting religious groups throughout the world,” states the chapter “Rising Social Hostility Against Religion in the Media.” “The instances where some religion is the target of propaganda, bias, stereotyping, misconception, misunderstanding and incitement to hatred in the press in countries across the globe have become legion.”

Despite the prevalence of bigotry in the media, no universal set of principles, rules or standards exists to guide the depiction of religion or belief by journalists or gauge whether news reports violate universal human rights standards.

A proposed Charter on Journalistic Ethics in Relation to Respect for Religion or Belief, contained in the publication, addresses this pressing need. It takes into account provisions of more than 300 professional journalist codes and attempts to strike an appropriate balance that preserves both fundamental freedoms of religion and expression.

There are, after all, guides to answer the questions about religions and religious freedom. More freedom is preferable to less. And until there is a universally respected code of journalistic ethics with regard to religion, the only answer is to look, ask and learn for oneself. That’s a good start.

John F. Sugg is executive editor of Freedom.

Media and Ethics