By Erin Kirsten Stein
Arizona Daily Wildcat
April 21, 1998

Do priests have religious freedom?


Arizona Daily Wildcat

Erin Kirsten Stein

The puritans came here to escape religious persecution. This country prides itself on the freedom of religion. You can believe in anything you want or nothing at all. Even Wicca is recognized by the government as an organized religion.

In the workplace, you cannot be discriminated against because of your religion. We believe it is wrong to hire an underqualified applicant just because you like his/her religion better than the other applicants. Religion is not even asked on applications, because it doesn't matter in the workplace. Being Jewish or Catholic or Hindu or Wiccan doesn't affect your job performance.


But what if your profession is the priesthood?

Consider this true story: A rector of a small Episcopal parish (the rector is the priest who heads the parish) is known for his outspoken ideas. In the view of traditional religion his views are sometimes considered scandalous. Some older parishioners have left his church because of his political positing from the pulpit during sermons.

He has preached on the actual historical evidence for Jesus walking the earth. He has preached often that the Bible is not entirely literal, it is often metaphorical.

This rector recently published a book with another man of the cloth. His parishioners can buy it at the local Borders Bookstore. The small paperback describes a new system of belief that this rector has adopted.

There is no god. There is no life after death. We should all be nice to each other.

The parishioners are aghast. "How can we celebrate Easter with a priest who doesn't believe in resurrection?" they ask.

Reportedly, the book also makes the comment that people who accept the Eucharist in mass are as stupid as sheep.

Doesn't sound like a smart thing for a priest to do.

Can this priest still perform his job as rector of the church even though his religious thought is traveling a different path?

When asked, the rector says he believes the same thing as his parishioners, he just puts it in different words.

The parish isn't buying it and it wants him out. Why is he still working at this church if he doesn't believe in its creed?

The parish of a church is run like a business. There is an office with a secretary and a finance committee to oversee the budget.

The rector in question makes about $68,000 a year to run this church. His parishioners are beginning to think he's staying just because of the money.

Is that wrong? How many people keep jobs they don't particularly like because they need to pay the bills? Is that wrong? Being a rector is a job with a paycheck; is it so different from any other profession?

The people at this church think so. They won't let their children take confirmation classes with this rector anymore. Some won't go to church anymore.

How do you separate church and state in this case? If the parish fires him can he sue for discrimination based on religion? How far are we willing to preserve the freedom of religion?

This rector is still perfectly capable of performing his duties. He hasn't lost all his knowledge of the church, he still knows what to teach in those confirmation classes. But if he's preaching these alternative views in church, then he could be in trouble.

What if he didn't, though, and what if he kept his newfound creed outside of his parish?

What about a Jewish copy editor working for a Catholic newsletter?

It's a lot of questions.

The obvious answer is a priest can't preach what he doesn't believe and no one would find it unreasonable to ask him to leave his position.

But is that fair?

Erin Kirsten Stein is a senior majoring in creative writing, journalism and general fine arts studies.


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