Church-State Lawyer Melissa Rogers Releases New Book ‘Faith in American Public Life’

“Faith in American Public Life” and author Melissa Rogers. Courtesy images

Melissa Rogers knows the laws governing the relationship between the U.S. government and religion are far from perfect.

But she’s fond of a certain quote by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: “Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”

Prompted by what Rogers sees as a new push toward rewriting these boundaries, continued mischaracterization and distortion of church-state laws, and historic levels of hostility to religious minorities, her new book, “Faith in American Public Life,” defines the relationship between the U.S. government and religion as one with “meaningful independence,” but the ability to cooperate to do good.

As a church-state lawyer who previously served as special assistant to President Barack Obama and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Rogers offers ways forward to preserve and refine those principles in the face of growing threats.

“We hear that the Supreme Court has kicked religion out of the public square,” she said. “We hear that a president can’t speak about his or her personal faith. We hear that our public schools should be religion-free zones. None of those things is true … and it gives rise to so many unnecessary disputes.”

Now a visiting professor at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, Rogers spoke to Religion News Service ahead of her panel at Harvard Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions last month.

“Attacks on houses of worship or on individuals seem to happen with alarming frequency, to the degree that some Americans feel they can’t practice their faith without fear,” she said. “I view that as a crisis. … We don’t have religious liberty in America if people don’t feel they can wear some kind of religious item, a headscarf or turban or yarmulke, and walk down the street and not be afraid.”

The FBI’s newly released report on hate crimes in 2018, which is widely considered to be a serious undercount of hate crimes around the country, found that bias-motivated violence has risen to a 16-year high. Religious-based hate crimes comprised nearly 1 in 5 single-bias incidents.

Americans must “move from the sidelines of this issue into solidarity with the people who are being targeted” and hold elected leaders accountable for “fear-mongering” based on race, religion and ethnicity, Rogers said.

“When we have leaders using dehumanizing language, talking about people in groups in a way that is discriminatory and debasing, when they traffic in anti-religious tropes, when they use violent imagery and language — that can have the effect of setting off people who are on the edge — who are not mentally stable — and causing them to carry out heinous attacks where lives are lost,” she said.

Partisanship is another critical threat to the role of religion in America’s public square, Rogers said.

While noting that political labels “rarely map well on religion,” Rogers said she has seen a tendency in the media and society at large to overlook religious practices and religious liberty claims that come from the political left and center, and in turn, a tendency to overemphasize religious liberty claims that come from the political right.

“We have people practicing their faith every day in ways that that don’t fit into a conservative cookie cutter approach,” she said. “We have Native Americans who are protesting the passage of oil pipelines across their land. Catholic nuns brought a lawsuit about that recently, in addition to issues raised around Standing Rock and other free-exercise claims made by Native Americans.”

Rogers reeled off a handful of others examples: an Arizona humanitarian worker who successfully invoked the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when he was put on trial for providing aid to migrants on the border; a South Texas Catholic diocese protesting the federal government’s efforts to use land on which a historic chapel sits for a border wall; houses of worship participating in the multifaith sanctuary movement to protect immigrants facing deportation; faith-based groups working with the government to serve as refugee resettlement agencies; resistance to the military draft; Sikhs and Muslims pushing for the right to wear headscarves, turbans and beards while serving in the military.

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Source: Religion News Service