Janie and Charlotte Discussing Sincere Differences Sincerely

Janie and Charlotte were best friends in college. They both grew up in the same fundamentalist denomination in the Bible Belt of Texas. They both remain Christian but have grown in different ways: Janie a Reformed believer in the Calvinist tradition and Charlotte an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). After they left college, they both married, raised their families, and now gush over their grandchildren. They both developed professionally in their various careers: Janie as a magazine columnist and published author of several novels and Charlotte as a congregational pastor turned cyberspace blogger. Janie and Charlotte work hard to maintain their friendship while they discuss honestly their different perspectives on the important issues of our day. Through these conversations, their mutual respect has grown and their ability to articulate their viewpoints has increased. They sharpen each other. Here is some of their ongoing debate about the topic of religious liberty.


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Whenever a public controversy flares up, certain buzz words and catchphrases form like lint and attach themselves to the debate.  After too many twirls through the drier (to stick with the metaphor), some of the meaning rubs off.  That’s why it’s a good idea when beginning a discussion to clarify just what we mean by the words we use.

Religious Liberty became a hot topic after the 2014 Obergefell decision, when the Supreme Court

a) struck down the right of states and their constituencies to define marriage (from the right), i.e. and

b) barred states from discriminating against same-sex couples (from the left).

Almost immediately, we started getting news about private business owners refusing to provide services for gay weddings, and the consequences thereby.  A number of state legislatures began debating religious liberty/conscience laws to protect individuals in this situation.  Opponents began putting “religious liberty” in scare quotes, implying that these concerns were trivial or hypocritical.   I disagree that these concerns are either, and here’s my definition:

Religious Liberty refers to the freedom of an individual to practice his or her religion, not only within the confines of a church but also outside in day-to-day life, so long as it causes no obvious harm or places no undue burden on a fellow citizen.  Religious liberty is guaranteed by the “free exercise” clause of Amendment 1 of the U.S. Constitution, wherein “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

So, what’s your definition?  And of course, you may feel free to critique mine, so long as you give yours first!


CVC photoBusted! “…putting ‘religious liberty’ in scare quotes…” is exactly what I did in our recent conversation when we were talking about how Ted Cruz approaches this issue. Mr. Cruz’s way of applying the Constitution to religious freedom does scare me. The way religious freedom legislation has mushroomed since Obergefell disturbs me deeply. This approach is a much smaller understanding of religious freedom in my mind. That’s why it’s in quotation marks. (Let’s talk more about that later.)

But otherwise – no – I do not mean to imply that “these concerns are trivial or hypocritical” as a rule. I believe wholeheartedly in religious liberty and I agree completely with your definition. No problem with our foundation here.

It’s the application of these constitutional guarantees that causes our dilemma.

As clear as the words of the First Amendment sound on the surface, the interpretation of what those words mean in any particular context and how those principles play out in our common life together is quite complex. Highly educated and well-intentioned lawmakers and judges have always had a variety of opinions about how to craft laws that appropriately apply these standards to our diverse American community.

I agree with your definition that the freedom to practice religion extends beyond the church doors. In the United States of America, all religious people enjoy the right to argue for our beliefs in the public conversation, to advocate for our positions, to write our letters and lobby our representatives, to vote…

(Interestingly the phrase “separation of church and state” is used by some of my liberal, secular friends to try to restrict the freedom of religious people to participate fully in the political process. That is a misunderstanding from the left that is just as troubling to me as the hints of theocracy I hear from the right.)

The problem comes when institutions of government attempt to enshrine particular religious understandings into civil law. Our nation has done this over and over again in our history and it always turns out badly. We religious people are right to expect equal protection under the law. But we do not have the right to expect legal privilege. The laws and policies of our government institutions must be fair and just for everyone.

Your turn…


Application is always the rub. The devil is in the details, and that’s precisely what worries both of us. I have two questions:

  • You say that through history our nation has enshrined particular religious understandings into civil law, and it always turns out badly. What particular religious understandings do you have in mind? I don’t need a whole list, just two or three examples to illustrate what you mean.
  • Does the right of religious people to advocate for our position extend to people in public office, exercising the duties of their office? Three examples: a) Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and others like them, who are granted legislative power by their constituents; b) Kim Davis, who refused to issue marriage licenses in Kentucky; c) Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran, who lost his job because of a self-published book intended for a Christian audience, one small part of which argued against the legitimacy of same-sex marriage. I realize each of these cases is different and may require some fine needle-threading, but what’s your view of the general principle?


Yes, I believe that throughout our history our nation has enshrined particular religious understandings into civil law. I will argue that the institution of slavery, the limitation of rights and opportunities for women and the exclusion of gay people from the marriage contract are three really big examples.

I’m aware it’s a bit of a tricky argument because one can also argue that those circumstances grew from the soil of long held cultural assumptions, not religious practice. But since I believe all our various religions are cultural constructs, I cannot help but see religious underpinnings.

The anecdotal evidence I offer is the countless sermons that have been preached arguing that slavery was God’s will, that women should stay in the place God assigned them and that marriage is between a man and a woman because … you know … Adam and Eve. I offer the evidence that masters used the Bible to intimidate their slaves, that husbands have used the Bible to suppress their wives, that parents have used the Bible to ostracize their gay children. I offer the evidence that it has been church folks who have been some of the most proactive and reactive to lobby for these widely held religious understandings to be incorporated into local, state and federal laws. I could also mention prohibition, abortion and the Sunday Blue Laws that you and I were so familiar with growing up in Dallas.

“Law is always contingent,” my attorney husband reminds me. Rules and regulations come from a people’s time and place that are inevitably bound up with our particular understandings within our culture in any given era. (That’s why arguments from natural law stand on shaky ground.) The brilliance of the First Amendment is that it was written (intentionally, I believe) with both stability and elasticity. As our nation grows and matures, we can stand firmly in our proclaimed individual rights while, at the same time, evolve in ways that increasingly make room for the rights of others.

I need to take a break. You stretch me, Janie! I’ll let you respond to question #1 and we can tackle question #2 in our next discussion.


Fair enough; thanks for those examples. Of course you are correct that religion (let’s just say the Bible) has been used to support American slave law and legislation limiting the rights of women. But does that mean the Bible was the impetus for those laws? I don’t believe so. American slave law was driven by economics and false science (the “scientific fact” that blacks were inferior), not primarily religion. The Bible was used to beat slaves into submission, but it also lifted them up, created a community (the black church) and provided the main principle for abolitionism. Women have likewise been subjected throughout all times and places, partly because of biology and because of the sinful tendency of the physically strong to oppress the weak. The Bible affirms that men and women are equal in worth, and does not bar women from the marketplace or the public square. I’ll admit that some passages in the Bible are problematic for women (some women, anyway!), but if scripture has been used as the central prop for legally limiting their rights, it’s been misused.

Same-sex marriage legislation is a bit more complicated. Since most of the religious liberty cases that have popped up recently concern SSM and other issues of sexuality, we’ll definitely be taking it up later.

All this is to say that the record of religion in law is murky: Christianity has been a motivation for law, for the worse and more often for the better, but seldom the entire motivation. It’s interesting, though: the basic principle of non-discrimination is religious in origin, specifically Judeo-Christian. It’s an outworking of the doctrine that humanity is created in the image of God their Creator, and all men and women are of equal worth to him. I doubt that the principle would even exist without that basic truth. Can American law be de-coupled entirely from Christianity, or perfectly neutral toward it? I’m not sure it’s possible, or even desirable.


Yes, you and I agree that the Bible and religion have been misused in these and many more social circumstances throughout history. Has religion been origin or justification for abuses of humans one against the other? Probably both-and.

I’ll work on my response to your question #2 and get back to you soon. Thanks for the stimulating conversation, my friend.


If you want to read more, go on to Charlotte and Janie’s follow up conversations: the second, the third and the final one.

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Janie B. Cheaney blogs at Gobsmacked by Life … sometimes

Janie has published six novels for teens. Her historical fiction is especially well done with solid research, engaging characters and great writing.  Janie’s J.B.Cheaney Facebook page is a fun and helpful author resource.


Charlotte Vaughan Coyle lives in Paris TX and blogs about intersections of faith, culture and politics on her website and Intersections Facebook page. She is national secretary for Coffee Party USA and contributes regularly to the Join the Coffee Party Movement Facebook page.

Charlotte is an ordained minister within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and also blogs about Scripture from a progressive Christian approach in her Living in The Story Musings.










4 thoughts on “Janie and Charlotte Discussing Sincere Differences Sincerely

  1. I stumbled on this discussion a bit by accident, as it came up on my facebook wall, and was glad I did. My background is entirely different, I grew up in a rather non-practicing Jewish family in NY and have lived in Europe, mostly in France, for the last 40 years where the notion of separation of church (religion, if you prefer) and state is very sacred and a constant theater of conflict. So when Janie asks if American law should be decoupled from religion and answers herself by saying that it may not be possible, or even desirable, the only response I could give her comes from her own writing, a few lines earlier: “It’s an outworking of the doctrine that humanity is created in the image of God their Creator, and all men and women are of equal worth to him.” If indeed men are the image of God (and I will admit that I’m not much of a believer, for whatever that’s worth), then why shouldn’t the basic tenet that all (wo)men are equal and of equal worth not be the only touchstone in how our country is run? And why should any religious notion, especially Christian–for those of us who are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist–have any saw whatsoever in how our laws are faceted or our country governed? I’ve been appalled at the way our present election campaign is being run, yet the one thing that gives me a glint of hope, so far, is that religion has not been a factor. Almost no one even mentioned that Bernie Sanders was Jewish, he never made a thing out of it and preferred to talk about his devotion to his fellow people rather than his religion, and I found that heartening. My take therefore is that religion should have NO bearing on our politics or our government, that freedom needs to be total or else it’s not freedom, and that means that anyone and everyone is entitled to do commerce where he chooses and should not be discriminated against for any reason, especially “religious”, since anyone claiming that he will not serve gays or blacks or Asians because his “religion” doesn’t permit it, is not being religious (“love thy neighbor as thyself” seems to me to be the most important phrase out of the entire religious literature) but merely selfish, ignorant and reactionary, not to mention illegal. And so, if religion does not take part in the political process then no claim to exceptional behavior can be made on religious grounds.

  2. Something I think that has to be addressed, is the cumulative effect of one’s ability to refuse service to a specific type of individual. It’s certainly not of importance if a bakery refused a gay wedding cake…seems simple enough. But the fact is, the past is riddled with the consequences of communities having the right to do just this; for example, in rural communities, let’s say a woman was unwed. The grocer’s wife refuses to allow her into the store to buy groceries because she’s a hussy. The pharmacist won’t fill her prescriptions; the gas station won’t fill her car; her child is not allowed to play with any other children. This was a reality in the past – Jews could not be members in the country club, were excluded from certain business deals, and we don’t even need to address how this was done to blacks. One person being “denied service” seems innocuous – but when communities ban together, the result could be that gay couple who bought a home in this community could virtually be run out of town on a rail – refused service at the bakery, by the pharmacist, at the gas station, by any number of professionals – until that couple is forced to sell their home and lose everything, because of a law that says, I don’t have to serve you if I don’t want to. So the next time you think about who you don’t want to serve, picture yourself in another country, as I have been, and finding that everyone around you disapproves of you and refuses to serve you or help you. It’s a horrifying experience, and in this country, no one should have to endure it.

  3. LOVE this discussion between 2 rational, intelligent women who see “things” differently.

    1. Reading this discussion reminds of the Federalist Papers – intelligent and lively. Really only one question and it concerns equality’s origination in the Judeo – Christian Myth. Equality, nature aside, God aside, is primarily a legal term. When we discuss the U.S. all rights are given by law, not the law of God, but man – this does not preclude an underlying belief system’s influence, however, if you read the preamble of the Constitution it states quite clearly that the intent of the Founders was to “establish” justice – this seems to give weight to an argument that they intended a country and system of law that could recognize the value of religion to individuals without any of its shackles. I do find it Ironic that all office holders swear on a Bible when taking the oath of Office – what do Jewish, Muslims and Atheist use – the last has to be a little tricky. I do agree with your consensus definition of freedom of religion – very good piece, I have read Charlotte’s pieces on several occasions and always found them intelligent and thoughtful – glad she isn’t alone, nice to read a meaty dialogue.

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