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National Perspective | RELIGION

Court Ruling Reflects Age-Old Battle of God's Law vs. Man's

June 26, 1997|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — When more than 600 people turned up unexpectedly last week at a county commission meeting to oppose a proposed gay-rights ordinance, most wore their fundamentalist Christian convictions on their sleeves and carried a Bible in their hands.

"Hallelujah!" one demonstrator shouted when the measure was defeated. "We did this to stop something that the Bible says is wrong."

Even before Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling that struck down a federal law aimed at curbing the government's power to intervene in Americans' spiritual lives, the age-old conflict between personal religious beliefs and the laws of society had been flaring up all around Florida.

In Lee County, in the southwest section of the state, a conservative majority on the school board is pushing a "Bible studies curriculum" that this fall could have high schoolers being taught that the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah's Ark are literal history. Opponents say such a curriculum not only offends common sense but violates the Constitution.

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In Orlando, Disney World officials are pondering the possible effects of a boycott declared by Southern Baptists over what they see as pro-gay Disney policies that contradict Christian conservatives' interpretation of the Bible.

And in the town of Palm Bay, police are weighing criminal charges against a young couple who cremated their daughter in the backyard after the baby died of unexplained causes. They said the Bible told them to do it.

While these controversies happen to be raging in Florida, similar clashes between those who feel torn between the word of God and the law of man are ubiquitous. "It's a part of the culture wars, and it's a dilemma," said Daniel L. Pals, professor of religion at the University of Miami. "Every person who swears allegiance to a divinity invites conflict."

The issue that led to the Supreme Court's finding unconstitutional the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act stemmed from a zoning dispute in a small Texas town. The city of Boerne challenged the act on the grounds that it usurped the governing power of cities, states and the courts.

But similar issues grip communities large and small all across the country, contributing to an adversarial atmosphere in which 16 states, including Florida, joined in supporting the city of Boerne's challenge of the law.

"When one group's rights run into another group's beliefs, that creates a big problem," says Katy Sorenson, a liberal Metro-Dade commissioner on the losing side in the gay-rights ordinance fight. "I certainly have great respect for religious belief, but human rights are something that transcends an individual's religious beliefs."

Is there now more ideological conflict than ever?

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"The issues have always been with us," said Christine Gudorf, professor of religious studies at Florida International University. "But there is a climate of fear out there about the direction society is going--disintegrating families, crime, drugs, the whole scene. And the traditionalists have become politically active."

For many, especially fundamental Christians, that political activism is rooted in what Pals described as "the Bible and the America of the 1850s or 1920s. And the steps they take can be troublesome when they are insensitive to minorities and the disenfranchised."

Ultimately, conflict seems inevitable. In recent years, Jehovah's Witnesses in California, Amish groups in Wisconsin and Hmong families in Rhode Island, among others, have skirmished with state and local governments over tenets of their faith. Even a law intended to preserve and expand religious freedoms--the law struck down by the high court Wednesday--proved divisive.

In Christian teaching, said Gudorf, the conscience speaks in absolutes--do this or be damned--and politics is the science of compromise. "In a pluralistic society," she added, "you have to recognize that you are not going to get everything you believe is right. And if what you do is contrary to the law, you have to be willing to take the consequences."

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

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