Beyond Houses of Worship – What a Native American Religious Group and Hobby Lobby Have in Common

Beyond Houses of Worship – What a Native American Religious Group and Hobby Lobby Have in Common

Chelsea Langston Bombino, July 22 2016

Over the past decade, the American consciousness of what qualifies as a religious institution, whether in public discourse or in public policy, has been sadly shrinking.  Fortunately, “Religious Institution” isn’t always narrowed to “House of Worship.” A recent court decision used the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling to undergird a broad conception of religion and thus to broadly protect religious exercise by a Native American group.

New numbers from a Pew Research Center Survey indicate that Americans are growing increasingly skeptical of how much houses of worship contribute to solving important social problems.  According to Pew, a quickly decreasing majority of Americans, 58%, still believe that churches, synagogues and other houses of worship either contribute “a great deal” (19%) or “some” (38%) to providing solutions for significant social challenges.  However, this number is down sharply from responses to the same question in recent years.  In August 2008, 75% believed houses of worship contributed “a great deal” or “some”; and as little as four years ago, the number was still nearly two thirds of Americans (65%).

These numbers demonstrate a worrisome trend for those who believe that houses of worship provide vital, innovative solutions for today’s pressing societal issues.  Yet there is a more subtle problem underlying these survey results, contained in the assumptions of the survey itself.  Pew specifically asked about “churches, synagogues and houses of worship,” completely overlooking the many parachurch organizations, religious service organizations, faith-based outreach programs and ministries that do not fit neatly inside the definition of “house of worship.” Consider the diverse tapestry of non-church, non-synagogue, non-mosque, faith-based organizations that contribute significantly to addressing society’s most pressing needs on a daily basis.  These FBOs are as diverse in faith identity as they are in service sector area.  They range from Jewish social services organizations, to schools that incorporate Native American spiritual practices and cultures, to Catholic refugee resettlement organizations and Buddhist counseling organizations.

Moreover, in an article discussing the Pew Survey data, Michael Lipka, writing for, uses the phrase “religious institutions” as synonymous with “houses of worship.” Lipka begins on a positive note, emphasizing that “religious leaders and institutions have taken part in efforts to address important social issues throughout American history, from slavery to civil rights to today’s advocacy in areas such as reducing poverty.” Yet, as the article proceeds, it becomes clear that “religious institutions” is used narrowly to define a “church, synagogue, or house of worship.”

This isn’t just semantics. Because there are thousands of religious institutions that are clearly not houses of worship, using this language as synonymous with a narrow definition of what constitutes a faith-based organization feeds into an increasingly prevailing and, frankly, incorrect public narrative.  The narrowing conception of what an organizational practice of faith looks like goes like this: exercising religion means doing something explicitly religious, like praying, reading holy texts or worshiping God with coreligionists.  Thus, an organization or institution that defines itself as religious is only a religious institution, per say, if it gathers like-minded believers in some act of explicit praise or prayer. Thus, in this framework, “house of worship” would be synonymous with “religious institution.”

Yet the underlying conceptions of this narrative fail to hold up when we consider that institutional expressions of religion cannot be relegated to narrowly conceived notions of clearly identifiable worship.  Religion calls individuals and organizations alike to love their neighbor, care for the oppressed, welcome the stranger, and seek justice for the marginalized.  Thus, expansive language is essential when discussing what religious freedom and religious institutions signify. Religious institutions are houses of worship, yes, but they are also social services agencies, healthcare centers, vocational training programs, educational institutions, advocacy organizations, and so much more.

Capricious distinctions between houses of worship, religious nonprofits and even faith-based businesses -whether in our rhetoric or in our regulations- are harmful.  An amicus brief signed by minority religious groups including the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Islamic Center of Murfeesboro and members of the Lipan Apache Tribe (in support of Priests for Life v. Burwell)  encapsulates this point. The brief expounds: “Upholding arbitrary distinctions among religious groups….would inevitably lead to the government playing favorites.”

As the amicus briefs explains, Pastor Soto of the Lipan Apache Tribe fell victim to such arbitrary governmental distinctions of what constitutes religious practice by religious groups.  Soto was participating in a religious ceremony involving eagle feathers, sacred to many Native American spiritual practices, when a federal agent confiscated his eagle feathers and raided a religious ceremony of the Lipan Apache Tribe.  The issue was that federal law bans the possession of an eagle feather except for “the religious purposes of Indian tribes.” Because the Lipan Apache were not recognized by the federal government as an official Indian tribe, the federal government interpreted the exception for religious purposes as not applying to Soto or other members of the Lipan Apache Tribe.

As the amicus brief states, “Soto brought a RFRA challenge to the federal government’s arbitrary decision not to grant him [or member of his faith group who used the eagle feather for religious purposes] a religious purposes exemption.” Luckily, as the amicus brief explains, Soto prevailed because the Fifth Circuit did not draw arbitrary lines around what religious groups qualified for an exemption: “By limiting the application of the religious purposes exception to federally recognized tribes, the federal government in effect told Soto that he was a disfavored practitioner of his religion.”

The amicus brief continues by concluding that the government, along similar lines, wrongly drew false distinctions when it allowed churches and houses of worship a complete exemption for the HHS Contraceptives Mandate “over equally religious organizations that share the same religious objections.”

Surprisingly to many, including Pastor Soto himself, the precedent set by the Hobby Lobby case made a big difference in the Fifth Circuit’s victory for Soto and other Lipan Apache Tribe coreligionists. A case affirming the freedom of a business to practice its religious precepts paved the way for the Fifth Circuit’s decision upholding the rights of non-federally-recognized Indian Tribes practice their religion by using eagle feathers for faith-based purposed.  In fact, the Fifth Circuit decision cited Hobby Lobby 18 times. As Soto stated to Texas NPR: “I wasn’t quite sure why they wanted to talk about Hobby Lobby in our law suit [but then I learned]…the whole aspect of the Hobby Lobby thing was the government dictating their spirituality….[the government was asking them to contradict] their spiritual religious convictions.”

Black Elk, a revered Lakota medicine man, once said: “As you walk upon the sacred earth, treat each step as a prayer.”  This message signifies that the faith lives of many Native Americans are inseparable from how they move in the world.  Many people and organizations of other religions also live out their faith in every aspect of their lives, individually and corporately.  Yet public attitudes and public policies increasingly want to separate the footstep from the prayer, the seemingly secular activity from its deeply sacred meaning and purpose.  This is true in our hesitancy to give faith communities that are not traditional houses of worship (or federally recognized Indian tribes) the same capacity to live out their faith through their service and “footsteps” as we give houses of worship to live out their faith through their praise and prayer.