Professor's blog helps keep 'church-state' debate alive

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By Linda Laderman
Legal News

More than 200 years after President John Adams signed the Treaty with Tripoli, which reassured its Muslim government that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion," the separation of church and state, remains a robust part of the national dialogue.

To provide information for that conversation, Howard Friedman, retired University of Toledo College of Law professor emeritus, started "Religion Clause," a blog that, Friedman says, offers "objective coverage of church-state and religious liberty developments, with extensive links to primary sources."

Since Friedman began his blog in 2005, it has become such a reliable source for recent developments in the area of First Amendment law that it was named to the American Bar Association's Journal Blawg 100 and to its Hall of Fame in 2014.

A Detroit area resident, Friedman says that his blog currently gets between 15,000 and 20,000 page views a month, drawing groups and individuals from the right and the left, something he attributes to, in part, to the impartiality of the articles and links that he posts.

"Many online sources of news about law and religion reflect a point of view, sometimes without making their biases clear," Friedman says. "My most important goal has been to create a resource that readers from all sides of the religious and political spectrums can trust. The diversity of readership of my blog indicates that I have had some success in doing this. I don't want to slant it."

According to Friedman, one of the major church-state issues facing the United States today is the attempt by some to use religion as a wedge in what he describes as "the culture wars." He points to the convergence of recent national and global events as a major contributing factor that places religion at "the center of a perfect storm."

"In an unsettled and rapidly changing world, the upending of cultural norms that have religious roots are sometimes the most visible symbols of change," Friedman says. "Thus the battle over samesex marriage became the highest profile symbol of the disappearance of an old cultural and economic status quo."

Friedman notes that the shift in global attitudes toward religion also has created new appeal for a brand of fundamentalism that crosses religious traditions and geographical boundaries.

"Fundamentalism discourages the 'live and let live' ethic that is so necessary for harmony in a diverse society," Friedman says. "In the United States, the increasing diversity of our population has transformed conservative Christian groups that once saw themselves as the 'moral majority' into groups that now sometimes perceive themselves as an oppressed minority. So, for example, minor attempts by retail stores to be welcoming to all by using the phrase 'Happy Holidays' instead of 'Merry Christmas' is transformed by others into a 'war on Christmas.'"

"Islamophobia" is another area where religion has emerged as a political issue brimming with stereotypes, Friedman says.

"We're doing the same kind of stereotyping that we've done with other groups in the past, like the Japanese in World War II," Friedman says. "Islam is the largest religion in the world and we are trying to put on blinders and ignore this huge population."

Over the years, Friedman says he has expanded his search from stories that pertained solely to issues in America to cover more religious topics from outside the U.S., a step that he finds has brought him a larger and more diverse readership.

"Some of the most interesting religious freedom and religion-state issues now arise in foreign nations. For someone like me born in the pre-Internet years, it is fascinating to see how wide a reach can be created through social media," Friedman says.

"Since I have been able to syndicate my blog feed through Twitter and Facebook, new audiences have opened up. As I once wrote in another context, the Internet has been the most important tool since the invention of the printing press in democratizing the dissemination of knowledge."

Published: Mon, Aug 01, 2016

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