GEORGETOWN, KY — Church-state expert Melissa Rogers joked she had chosen noncontroversial topics for her presentations April 4-5 as speaker for the 2011 Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State. A glance at the program and her three lecture topics suggested otherwise.

Rogers handled hot topics including religious expression in American public life (click here for podcast), a Christian and American case for defending Muslims’ free exercise rights (click here for podcast) and the Faith-based Initiative under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama (click here for podcast) in presentations sponsored by the Baptist Joint Committee and held on the campus of Georgetown College.

Videos of the lectures are available at the BJC Vimeo page. Podcasts of the lectures are available on the BJC’s iTunes channel.

Muslims’ Free Exercise Rights
In her case for defending Muslims’ free exercise rights, Rogers lamented the challenging environment in which conversations about American Muslims have taken place since September 11, including, most recently, challenges resulting from election-year politics and the flap over locating an Islamic center just blocks from where the Twin Towers once stood in New York. Despite government’s long recognition of Islam as a religion, Rogers said the challenges have included claims by some that it might not qualify as a religion under the First Amendment and thus would not deserve any First Amendment free-exercise protection.

Rogers pointed out Americans’ long tradition of defending each others’ rights, including civil rights and women’s suffrage. This list also includes religious freedom. “Time and again, people in groups of one faith have defended the rights of people in another faith group,” Rogers said.

“Men and women in movements like these have reinforced the notion that we aren’t American because we’re the same race or because we’re the same religion,” Rogers said.  “We’re Americans because we subscribe to a set of transcendent ideas and values, including equal justice under law and religious freedom for everyone. We are Americans because we insist that all Americans are entitled to the blessings of liberty and the dignity of justice.”

She said in contrast to rhetoric suggesting that all Muslims are responsible for the evil attack of “a lunatic fringe” — a notion she says is wrong, counterproductive, and a waste of precious time and resources — Americans should defend Muslims’ free exercise rights.

In her Christian case for defending Muslims’ free exercise rights, Rogers pointed to the Bible, specifically stories in Genesis that reveal God created men and women in his image and with the freedom to choose, including in matters of faith.

“It is this freedom to choose that makes faith so meaningful for us,” she said. “The fact that we can say no to God, makes our yes to God so deeply meaningful.” She concluded that “Christians have a duty to safeguard the ability of each person to listen to and follow their conscience and to practice their faith free from coercion.”

However, she said that defending the right of a person of another faith to practice their faith is not the same as defending the truth claims of another faith. And “defending the right to practice a different religion is not the same as giving up one’s ability to criticism another religion.”

Religious Expression in American Public Life
Rogers opened the lectureship with a discussion of religious expression in American public life, and in doing so, combated the most common fallacy she has noticed about the topic, “that the Supreme Court has silenced religion in this sphere.” 

“While we might well disagree about whether the Supreme Court came to the right conclusion in one case or another, clearly its decisions preserve a role for religion in our nation’s public life,” she said. 

She organized religious expression in public life into two broad categories. One involved erecting displays with religious symbols and Scripture on government property and is called the civil religion model. The other model, called the equal access model, provides, for example, that if government opens its property to community groups generally, then it must open its property to community religious groups on the same basis. “I vote strongly for the equal access approach,” Rogers said.  “I believe that model does a much better job of keeping faith free.

“When the government is given power to select certain religious Scriptures or symbols for posting or display, it gains a degree of control over religion. It will exercise that control in ways that best advance governmental interests, not spiritual interests and that will warp religion’s witness” Roger said.

She said the key question under constitutional standards is to whom the religious speech is attributable — the government or non-governmental groups or individuals. Therefore, “our constitutional standard captures the common sense truth, that when a Muslim girl wears a headscarf to public school or a when a Jewish boy wears a yarmulke to public school or when a Christian girl wears a cross necklace to school, it is abundantly clear that these are expressions of personal faith not those of the government.   
“Under the equal access model, the speech that may be religious … occurs on government property but it’s not part of any government program or activity. It is solely the speech of the nongovernmental groups and individuals” and is therefore free from governmental regulation, control and influence.

Faith-based Partnerships

In her presentation on Faith-based partnerships, Rogers, who served as chair of President Obama’s first Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, gave an overview of the history of public-private partnerships, including mention of U.S. Supreme Court precedent.  She then discussed the Faith-based Initiative under presidents Bush and Obama, comparing and contrasting the administrations’ handling of seven categories, including employment discrimination based on religion, restrictions on grant money and rights of social service beneficiaries.

Rogers serves as director of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity Center for Religion and Public Affairs and as a nonresident senior fellow within the Governance Program of The Brookings Institution. She also teaches courses on church-state relations and Christianity and public policy within the divinity school.

Rogers previously served as the executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington, D.C. Prior to her leadership at the Pew Forum, Rogers served as general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee. She has co-authored a case book on religion and law for Baylor University Press, Religious Freedom and the Supreme Court.

In 2004, the Shurdens of Macon, Ga., made a gift to the Baptist Joint Committee to establish the annual lectureship. Designed to enhance the ministry and programs of the Baptist Joint Committee, the lectures will be held at Mercer University every three years and at another seminary, college or university the other years.

A nationally noted church historian, Dr. Walter B. Shurden is the founder of the Center for Baptist Studies and, until his retirement in 2007, was the Callaway Professor of Christianity at Mercer. He is now Minister at Large, Mercer University. Dr. Kay W. Shurden, a retired professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Mercer University School of Medicine, is a noted author and maintains a practice in counseling and supervision.