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Religious Freedom in Texas

The news that the state of Texas has decided that the Unitarian/Universalist church no longer qualifies as a legitimate religion like Scientology, because it does not require that its adherents profess belief in a higher being, says a lot about Texas but also brought to mind something I learned some time ago about religious freedom. (For the full article about the Texas decision, see this entry on Garalog, which happens to be my boss's blog, about which more later.)

A decade ago, in DC, our downstairs neighbors, who lived in a tiny half-basement apartment, were a lovely, frail couple in their late 80s/early 90s. The first thing we noticed about them is that they seemed to wear only purple. I speculated that they were Theosophists, although I had only the vaguest idea what Theosophists were or even if there were any left from the era of Yeats and Madame Blavatsky. But I wasn't too far off the mark. As we got to know them better, we learned that they were adherents of a religion called "I Am." "I Am" was a huge fad of the late 1930s, a prototype of New Age faiths, founded by one Guy Ballard, who claimed that he had met various inspirational figures when climbing Mount Shasta, including notably the Archangel Gabriel and Saint Germain but also Hindu deities and "Ascended Masters" from almost every other faith. He also claimed to have been George Washington in a past life, and that his wife had been Benjamin Franklin.

"I Am" had a large temple in Chicago, which may still exist, as well as a presence in Mount Shasta, and, now, a web site or two as well as the requisite anti-"I Am" site. In addition, there was a small temple in DC -- a townhouse around the corner from us, which we had never noticed because the words "I Am" above the door were in white letters against a white background. (The temple is still there, on north side of the block of Calvert Street between the bridge and Connecticut Avenue. ) We also learned that the wearing of purple was only for healing purposes. Purple represented "The Violet Consuming Flame" of well-being. Later, the two decided that they needed to return to Mount Shasta, and embarked on a journey by bus and train, and the last we heard of them was a postcard telling us they had made it safely back to their spiritual home.

But the most interesting thing I learned about "I Am" was that it led to one of the most important freedom-of-religion cases in our history. Mr. Ballard was prosecuted for mail fraud and making false claims, on the grounds that his claim to have met Gabriel and Saint Germain on the foothills of Mount Shasta were demonstrably false. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that no jury or government agency can ever be asked to decide the truth or falsehood of a religious belief. That may seem obvious, but it was evidently not at the time, and apparently it is not obvious in Texas. Here's the key section of Justice Douglas's opinion in United States vs. Ballard (1944):


The First Amendment has a dual aspect. It not only ?forestalls compulsion by law of the acceptance of any creed or the practice of any form of worship but also safeguards the free exercise of the chosen form of religion. Thus the Amendment embraces two concepts, freedom to believe and freedom to act. The first is absolute but, in the nature of things, the second cannot be. Freedom of thought, which includes freedom of religious belief, is basic in a society of free men. West Virginia State Board of Education by Barnette [1943]. It embraces the right to maintain theories of life and of death and of the hereafter which are rank heresy to followers of the orthodox faiths.

Heresy trials are foreign to our Constitution. Men may believe what they cannot prove. They may not be put to the proof of their religious doctrines or beliefs. Religious experiences which are as real as life to some may be incomprehensible to others. Yet the fact that they may be beyond the ken of mortals does not mean that they can be made suspect before the law. Many take their gospel from the New Testament. But it would hardly be supposed that they could be tried before a jury charged with the duty of determining whether those teachings contained false representations. The miracles of the New Testament, the Divinity of Christ, life after death, the power of prayer are deep in the religious convictions of many. If one could be sent to jail because a jury in a hostile environment found those teachings false, little indeed would be left of religious freedom.

The Fathers of the Constitution were not unaware of the varied and extreme views of religious sects, of the violence of disagreement among them, and of the lack of any one religious creed on which all men would agree. They fashioned a charter of government which envisaged the widest possible toleration of conflicting views. Man's relation to his God was made no concern of the state. He was granted the right to worship as he pleased and to answer to no man for the verity of his religious views. The religious views espoused by respondents might seem incredible, if not preposterous, to most people. But if those doctrines are subject to trial before a jury charged with finding their truth or falsity, then the same can be done with the religious beliefs of any sect. When the triers of fact undertake that task, they enter a forbidden domain. The First Amendment does not select any one group or any one type of religion for preferred treatment. It puts them all in that position. Murdock v. Pennsylvania [1943]. As stated in Davis v. Beason [1890], ?With man's relations to his Maker and the obligations he may think they impose, and the manner in which an expression shall be made by him of his belief on those subjects, no interference can be permitted, provided always the laws of society, designed to secure its peace and prosperity, and the morals of its people, are not interfered with.?? So we conclude that the District Court ruled properly when it withheld from the jury all questions concerning the truth or falsity of the religious beliefs or doctrines of respondents?

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 20, 2004 | Permalink

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