USA: Examples of conscience, justice, and religious liberty issues in California

California, like Taiwan, recognizes freedom of religion or belief. Sometimes, it is not granted without a fight.

by Hans Noot*

Bitter Winter (28.10.2023) – A paper presented at the seminar “California for Tai-Ji-Men: a Forum on Conscience, Justice, and Freedom of Religion or Belief,” co-organized by CESNUR, Human Rights Without Frontiers, and Action Alliance to Redress 1219 on October 13, 2023 at Le Méridien Pasadena Arcadia, Pasadena, California.

Conscience, justice, and freedom of belief are interrelated concepts that have been recognized and protected by international human rights law. Conscience is the inner sense of right and wrong that guides one’s actions and decisions. Justice is the fair and impartial treatment of all people according to the rule of law. Freedom of belief is the right to hold and manifest one’s religion or belief, or to have no religion or belief at all, without coercion or discrimination.

As it happens, in California, like Taiwan, freedom of religion or belief, is not necessarily granted without a fight. Here are some examples to draw from:

-California imposed strict restrictions on indoor religious gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, while allowing other activities such as retail shopping, dining, and entertainment to operate with limited capacity. Many religious groups challenged the restrictions as discriminatory and unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court ruled in their favor several times.

-California has faced several lawsuits over the display of religious symbols on public property, such as crosses, menorahs, and nativity scenes. Some plaintiffs have argued that these displays violate the separation of church and state and endorse a particular religion, while some defendants have argued that they are historical, cultural, or secular symbols that do not favor any religion.

-California has enacted laws to protect the rights of students and employees to wear religious dress and grooming, such as hijabs, turbans, yarmulkes, and beards, in schools and workplaces. However, some cases of discrimination, harassment, or denial of accommodation have still occurred.

And last, but no least, the 2008 Proposition 8, which was a ballot proposition and a state constitutional amendment intended to ban same-sex marriage in California. Amongst other groups it was especially relevant for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church issued a letter to its members in California, urging them to do all they could to support Prop 8. Church members raised at least $14 million to the cause, accounting for more than half of the donations in favor of the measure. They also volunteered to campaign for Prop 8, making phone calls, distributing flyers, and knocking on doors. This was all done because the Church teaches that same-sex marriage is contrary to traditional marriage, which is seen as the backbone of healthy families and of society. However, the Church’s involvement in Prop 8 also generated a lot of criticism and backlash from the opponents of the measure, who accused it of violating the separation of church and state, discriminating against gay people, and interfering in the democratic process. Some of the consequences were facing protests, boycotts, vandalism, and harassment from angry activists and groups, a lawsuit for failing to report some of their campaign contributions, and a damaged image in the media and in popular culture. In the end, it caused a decline in public approval and trust, as well as a loss of members and converts.

For the Tai-Ji-Men to practice Qigong, California can be a safe haven. But, as with any new religious movement, especially for those from a foreign culture, one must be vigilant, and participate in the continual struggle to keep justice, freedom of conscience, and of religion or belief on the table. Whilst these rights are deeply enshrined in constitutional law, there is more than just a legal approach to it. They are not just granted by the state but fought for in a public arena of debate. And it is religions themselves, as they grant these freedoms to their own membership as well as protect those whom they do not agree with, which can take a leading role in making a society truly free from inappropriate discrimination and harassment—a society where the rule of law and the respect of people for each other reign supreme.

(*) Hans Noot is president of the Dutch Gerard Noodt Foundation for Freedom of Religion or Belief (GNF), named after the Dutch legal scholar and champion of religious liberty Gerard Noodt (1647–1725). He is a member of the International Advisory Board of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies (ICLRS) at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, and co-organizer of “Breed Overleg Godsdienstvrijheid” (Wider Consultation on Religious Freedom), an initiative with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Photo:“Trust in God, not gov[ernment]”: protests against COVID-19 restrictions in Huntington Beach, California, 2020. Credits.

Further reading about FORB in USA on HRWF website