MSU College of Law

Professor Frank Ravitch Makes Headlines for Scholarship on the Intersection of Religion and Law

MSU Law Professor Frank Ravitch has recently been a guest on National Public Radio (NPR) and Michigan Public Radio, quoted in the Detroit Free Press, and a guest blogger on The Conversation, where his piece on bible studies in schools gained 30,000+ views. He also published a book in 2016 titled, “Freedom's Edge: Religious Freedom, Sexual Freedom, and the Future of America (Cambridge Univ. Press).” We spoke with him about recent events and the difficulties of balancing political and religious priorities.

Do you see particular challenges in the United States’ current political climate for maintaining religious freedom and also for maintaining some modicum of separation of state and religion?

I do. I think that we have become so polarized that people view these issues through a political lens and we have extremists on both sides. The biggest challenge I see is an authoritarian mindset among many in the public spotlight who set the tone for partisans on both sides.

In the context of religious freedom you have some people who equate it with discrimination against members of the LGBT community due to recent events. Religious freedom gets painted by some in the politically correct movement as oppressive even though more than 90% of religious freedom claims have no impact on the rights of others and religious freedom claims are most often asserted by religious minorities.

On the other hand some social conservatives do want to use religious freedom as an excuse to discriminate, as recent laws in Mississippi and North Carolina (both of which are unconstitutional) demonstrate. This gives fuel to their opposition and does untold harm both to members of the LGBT community and to the cause of religious freedom itself.

As for separation between government and religion the United States Supreme Court has eroded the wall of separation proclaimed by the Court in in 1948. In 2017, outside of organized school prayer and similar activities there is little separation left in light of many recent Court decisions. This is a shame because I think a stronger bit of separation actually helps religion. As Roger Williams pointed out more than 100 years before the founding of the United States, government tends to corrupt religion even when it seeks to promote it. In this sense the Jeffersonian notion of separation, which is to protect the state from religion has a distinct religious corollary, which is to protect religion from the state. Both result in a strong modicum of separation that is sadly lacking today, but was taken for granted 25 years ago.

Do you have any advice for navigating those challenges?

Dialogue! It is essential that people listen to each other and work from a position of commonality where possible. I think that both on the far right and the far left we have people who want to shut down discourse and silence anyone who disagrees. We see it with extreme forms of social conservativism and extreme forms of political correctness. If you don’t follow the line you are not worthy of being heard. This is destroying many freedoms, not just religious freedom. As I mention at the end of Freedom’s Edge these two camps are more similar than they would ever admit. Their main commonality is authoritarianism.

As long as we allow the debate to be defined by these stifling approaches it will be hard to navigate any of the challenges facing religious freedom. I also think that the segment of religious conservatives who think the government should be in peoples’ bedrooms, hearts, and prayers hurt their own cause by being  obviously hypocritical since most advocate small government in other contexts. At the same time, I think the segment of progressives who claim to be tolerant yet look down on anyone that does not agree with them hurt their own cause as well.

Your book discusses the ways religious conservatives and social progressives can work together, but what’s the biggest obstacle in their way?

The problem is very complex and there is no one solution; although I lay out a detailed roadmap issue by issue in the book. I do think communication is key though. There is a lot of common ground on religious freedom and sexual freedom. Most religious freedom claims have no impact on sexual freedom and most sexual freedom claims have no impact on anyone’s religious freedom (except in the minds of those referenced above who seem to think government should be their religious police force).

I think that protecting religious freedom claims of for-profit corporations, except perhaps sole proprietorships engaged in expressive businesses (and even then only under limited circumstances), is a huge mistake. The Hobby Lobby has already, and will continue to, undermine religious freedom for traditional religious entities such as houses of worship, religious schools, and other religious non-profits. This is both because of the backlash we have seen to this protection and the ways in which courts tend to interpret rights more narrowly when they apply to a broader group of people or entities. I explain this in detail in Freedom’s Edge.

Moreover, protection of for-profit entities is the biggest obstacle to creating common ground because allowing even closely held for-profit corporations to deny benefits as happened in Hobby Lobby or to discriminate against members of the LGBT community as has happened in other cases is a far cry from allowing religious entities to do so. This is reflected in the backlash against state RFRAs that protect for-profit entities. In fact, had the RFRA proposed in Michigan a few years ago made clear that for-profit entities were not protected (or the legislature had passed the amendment to the Elliot-Larsen Act to protect members of the LGBT community from discrimination by for-profit entities) the state would have a RFRA today. The Hobby Lobby decision helped keep the Michigan RFRA from passing and has done so in other states as well. Even so, I think all sides can work from common ground on other issues even if battles continue over for-profit entities.

Much of your work also focuses on international intersections of religion and law. How does the United States compare to other countries on the issue of religious freedom?  

It depends on the issue. The U.S. does pretty well overall, but there are certainly localities where there are problems, and recently some concerns have arisen at the national level. At the national level two major concerns are the recent targeting of specific religions, whether acknowledged or not, in some executive orders, and the protection of religious freedom for for-profit entities, which has begun to erode religious freedom for traditional religious entities due to social backlash. The latter issue is discussed above and is a major focus in Freedom’s Edge. The former topic has united pretty much every law and religion scholar and practitioner I know regardless of political or religious views. Everyone I know in the field, from the most conservative to the most progressive, is pretty repulsed and saddened at the utter disregard for fundamental constitutional and American values reflected in the recent Executive Order on immigration that appear to target a specific religion in a manner that does not even make sense from a national security perspective, which is the claimed basis for the order.

Is there a particular country or region, aside from the United States, that you’re studying right now, and how are you focusing that study?

I have been engaged in ongoing research on Japan and the concept of 政治と宗教の分離 pronounced, Seiji to Shuukyou no Bunri, which means essentially “Separation of Politics and Religion.” The Japanese approach is fascinating and definitely worth comparative study. The Japanese Supreme Court and some lower courts have had some very insightful and helpful analysis on issues such as religious freedom and the boundaries between culture and religion under the Japanese Constitution and related laws.