Friday, March 23, 2007

Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's

I wasn't paying attention or I might have gone down yesterday to listen to oral arguments at the state supreme court in this case, which will decide whether Texas' Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by then-Gov.-now-President George Bush prohibits municipalities from restricting religious prison ministries within their boundaries. This case of first impression comes out of Nueces County, where
The Philemon Homes ministry was started by Pastor Rick Barr to rehabilitate and assist non-violent criminals released from prison. Soon after the establishment of the ministry, the city of Sinton passed a zoning ordinance banning the ministry from existing within city limits.

Pastor Barr sought recourse under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but a Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi ruled in favor of the city. The court ruled the law did not protect the pastor or the ministry. Today the Supreme Court of Texas heard oral arguments in the case. This will be the first time the Texas Supreme Court has interpreted the law.
I know a lot of folks at my old employer who weren't fans of the Religious Freedom Restoration law, but I noticed they signed on to an amicus brief in support of Pastor Barr. I always supported the law for precisely this reason - increasingly municipalities, often at the behest of NIMBY-style neighborhood activists, simply aren't letting facilities that provide treatment or re-entry services to prisoners receive zoning in the locations where they're needed. This statute, at least if the Supreme Court holds for Pastor Barr, insists that religious ministries can't be restricted by such pruderies. I wish that were true for all re-entry work, but you take a long hike one step at a time. If it also results in letting an urban church expand its parking lot against neighborhood objections, perhaps that's the price of religious freedom?

Supposedly the oral arguments can be viewed online here, but I couldn't make the viewer work on either Firefox or Explorer, so I don't know what gives there. Here are the briefs and amici in the case.

Of all major religions, Christianity holds a special place for prisoners, largely as a result of Romans' role in martyring Jesus, then their persecution first of Christ's Jewish followers in Palestine and later Pauline Christians throughout the Roman Empire before the rise of Constantine. The New Testament in particular depicts many saints imprisoned, even writing books of the Bible while incarcerated. According to the author of Acts, God once even sponsored a jail break!

All this to say, even a cursory scriptural reading reveals that prison ministries are a central part of Christianity's founding tenets. So it follows, IMO, that in a society committed to religious freedom, a Christian's freedom to minister to prisoners shouldn't be limited by petty secular laws like zoning.

The Psalms tell us that the Lord heareth the poor and despiseth not his prisoners. We'll find out soon if that's also true of the Texas Supreme Court.


Anonymous said...

When I studied land use law thirty-plus years ago, I learned that a zoning ordinance could not be "arbitrary or capricious". That legal standard has been upheld in many, many court cases in which unreasonable ordinances, particularly those that sought an outright ban of a particular use, were challenged. Now that principle no longer applies. Communities are apparently free to enact whatever sorts of restrictions they wish, including banning perfectly legal businesses or institutions or entire groups of citizens from within their borders. This is our legal system under Republican government.

Anonymous said...

What a great post! The East Texas Baptist boy comes through on that one.

I find myself feeling more and more Christian in recent years -- usually after exposure to right wing religious hypocracy.

AlanBean said...

Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Scott. Most victims of the criminal justice system are Christians. Most proponents of criminal justice reform are decidedly secular. The civil rights movement was a profoundly spiritual phenomenon. I was on a call-in radio show in Alexandria, Louisiana yesterday in which the black host, all the guests (me included), and every single caller made repeated references to God and Jesus. All of this seemed perfectly natural to me because my worldview has been shaped by biblical narratives; but I suspect that most criminal justice reformers would have been distinctly uncomfortable with all the God talk. The common perception that religious people are tough-on-crime zealots only applies to white folks (and even then it's a gross over-simplification). Move into black or Latino circles and the inability to speak the language of religion becomes a serious impediment to effective advocacy. I am not suggesting that secular, unreligious, or anti-religious reformers should fake religious piety in the interest of impact. I am suggesting that religious reformers have a unique contribution to make; a contribution that is generally undervalued, or even despised by secular reformers.