STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's back away from the news for a moment, back away from individual stories to see a theme that many of them share. It's like we're backing away from a tree to see the forest. The theme is a conflict between core American values, religious freedom and equality. NPR's Tom Gjelten has been covering this story. Hi, Tom.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: So what are some of the news stories that share that theme?
GJELTEN: The most recent example is we've heard about a draft executive order from the White House that's floating around that would effectively bar the government from punishing people or institutions who support marriage exclusively as between one man and one woman.
INSKEEP: And that's being cast as a religious freedom measure, I guess.
GJELTEN: This is in the name of religious freedom. It's produced a lot of controversy. We could still see something coming out of that.
INSKEEP: And there's also legislation that would do something similar. Is that right?
GJELTEN: Similar language from Ted Cruz. It's called the First Amendment Defense Act because, again, it's about the idea of religious freedom.
INSKEEP: And we've seen numerous news stories that feature that phrase religious freedom in recent years. So is this just about last November's election then?
GJELTEN: No, not at all, Steve. There's a culture war in this country. Americans in recent years, as you know, have become more secular. They don't go to church as often. Bible reading, prayers in public are now frowned upon.
And, of course, in addition to that, a lot of people have become much more supportive of LGBT rights. And in reaction to that, biblically conservative Americans feel that their faith is under assault. And so there is a real reaction to those trends. That's the background to this.
INSKEEP: People are saying, if I have to interact with certain people in certain ways, it's a limitation on my religious freedom. Is this really a religious freedom issue, though?
GJELTEN: Well, the First Amendment to the Constitution says government can't establish a religion, but neither can it limit the exercise of religion. And that's the issue here. What does it mean to be free to exercise your religion? It's not about what you can believe. It's whether you can act on those beliefs.
INSKEEP: What's an example of that?
GJELTEN: Well, take adoption. In some states, it is illegal to turn down a same-sex couple when you're placing children for adoption. That's discrimination. But in the Catholic church, the sacrament of marriage is defined officially as the union of a man and a woman. So a Catholic adoption agency is torn between its faith doctrine and what it sees as a faith obligation to help orphans. I got this from Stanley Carlson-Thies. He's the head of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.
STANLEY CARLSON-THIES: One of the major activities of the church going way back was to look at orphans. And for that to be illegal unless the religious people change their standard seems to me an unfortunate way to solve that.
GJELTEN: So that's a religious freedom issue. Where adoptions are concerned, will Catholics be free to act according to their religious belief?
INSKEEP: Although if you're a same-sex couple, it's an equality issue. Because you say there are all kinds of parents, and why shouldn't we be able to adopt like anybody else?
GJELTEN: You shouldn't face discrimination because of your sexual orientation. That should be illegal. Here we go to Karen Narasaki from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
KAREN NARASAKI: I can't think of a single civil rights law that doesn't have some people who are unhappy about it, right? But once the country has said, well, we believe that people who are LGBT need to be protected from discrimination, then how do you make sure that happens?
GJELTEN: And can you do it without trampling on someone's religious freedom? I put this to Charles Haynes. He directs the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum here in Washington. He argues that religious people are entitled to what he calls a claim of conscience.
CHARLES HAYNES: We may not like the claim of conscience, but, you know, we don't judge claims of conscience on whether we like the content of the claim. We are trying to protect the right of people to do what they feel they must do according to their God. That is a very high value.
GJELTEN: Now, what's interesting here, Steve, is that Haynes says this even though he's actually a supporter of LGBT rights.
HAYNES: Nondiscrimination is a great American principle. It's a core American principle, as is religious freedom. When you have two important American principles coming into tension, into conflict with one another, our goal as Americans is to sit down and try to see if we can uphold both.
GJELTEN: Both religious freedom and equality.
INSKEEP: That's what you say the divide is. But to what extent is this really a debate between religious people and secular people, if we would?
GJELTEN: Well, there actually are secular people on both sides of this issue. And there are religious people on both sides, including on the anti-discrimination side, like the head of the Episcopal Church in the United States, Bishop Michael Curry. He spoke recently on this, saying he does not see a religious freedom problem in America, not like in other parts of the world, where Christians face real persecution.
MICHAEL CURRY: I'm not worried about my religious freedom. Really? I get up and go to church on Sunday morning, ain't nobody stopping me. My freedom to worship is protected in this country, and that's not going to get taken away. I have been in places where that's been infringed. That's not what we're talking about.
INSKEEP: It's not because some religious conservatives say they want more than the freedom to worship.
GJELTEN: That's right. They want the freedom to exercise their faith every day of the week, even if it means challenging this idea of equality. I go back to Stanley Carlson-Thies from the Religious Freedom Alliance.
CARLSON-THIES: We can't use equality to just wipe out one of the rights or say you can have the right as long as you just exercise it in church, but not out in life.
INSKEEP: OK. If you can't do that, how do we resolve the issue?
GJELTEN: We may not be able to. There's going to be a lot of tough fights in the legislatures around the country and in the courts. You know, some judges say if you tell one group of people they can act in accordance with their religious beliefs, you are effectively establishing a religion. Others say that protecting a set of beliefs is not the same as protecting a particular religion.
For some guidance here, I went to John Inazu. He's a law professor at Washington University who has written a lot on this question. His view is that this tension is so profound that a resolution is unlikely, at least in the short term.
JOHN INAZU: There were efforts early on about some kind of compromise. I think those are less and less plausible as time goes on. It's hard to see in some of these cases how there would be an outcome that is amenable to everyone. And so I think we're seeing these cases with us for a long time.
GJELTEN: Not a lot of hope for compromise. When both sides see themselves as standing on moral or religious high ground, changing minds, Steve, is not easy.
INSKEEP: Tom, as always, thanks.
GJELTEN: You bet.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten.
(SOUNDBITE OF RYAN HELSING AND MATTHEW SETZ' "LAYERS")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.