The Religious Liberty of Creation Care: A Constitutional Right

From its inception, the U.S. Constitution has expounded virtues of pluralistic liberty and religious freedom under the First Amendment, but how does that apply to faith institutions mandated to care for God’s creation?

Isaiah Berlin famously explored the nuances of democratic freedom in his critically acclaimed 1958 essay, Two Concepts of Liberty. The now famous work examined the functionality and theoretical structures of liberty, naturally extending itself to topics of religious freedom. In his pivotal examination, the German philosopher concluded that two avenues of liberty exist: positive and negative. Positive being an individual or organization's freedom to do as they please, so long as that expression does not infringe on the right(s) of other citizens; i.e. negative freedom.

The art, Berlin suggested, is a healthy balance between the two, arriving at a place where people are free to practice as they will, so long as it does not interfere with the freedom of their neighbors. While the discussion of religious freedom has come to involve a great number of topics, recent debates have extended to the religious freedoms of faith institutions as they pertain to one’s scriptural responsibility to care for creation.

In Massachusetts, Bedford 's First Unitarian Universalist Parish applied for a “certificate of appropriateness” to “install solar panels on its Meetinghouse,” only to be denied by the town’s Historic District Commission (HDC). In an appeal filed by the  First Unitarian Universalist Parish, “the decision exceeds the authority of the HDC, was legally untenable, unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious, and violated the rights of the members of First Parish to the free exercise of their religious beliefs…”

Stewardship of our natural environment is central to our faith

Dan Bostwick, spokesman for the church’s solar energy committee added, “We consider this to be a religious act,” continuing, “Stewardship of our natural environment is central to our faith. By installing solar panels to reduce our carbon footprint, we are acting on our core spiritual beliefs.”

According to the appeal, the Seventh Principle of Unitarian Universalism teaches practitioners to respect the “interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.” For the Bedford Parish, and many other faith communities, this is interpreted as a responsibility for both congregates and their facilities to mitigate the use of fossil fuels.

The fight for solar panels on faith facilities has, however, extended beyond the Massachusetts border. As I reported last year, Indiana and North Carolina faith leaders have encountered many roadblocks on their journey to renewable energy, often at the hand of utility companies who have lobbied with great success to end third-party solar financing for faith facilities.

In third-party solar financing, a non-utility company provides solar panels to a customer at little or no up-front cost. Solar energy produced by the customer may then be sold back to the client (in this case churches), at a rate much lower than a standard utility company might charge. For faith facilities, who often lack the resources to purchase costly solar panels, the relationship has been fruitful, but with third-party financing now banned in Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma and North Carolina, the climate-minded action has become a battleground for religious freedom.

In Indiana, HOUSE BILL No. 1320 stopped Cumberland First Baptist Church and Englewood Christian Church from third-party solar financing, stirring a debate so heated that it bridged the partisan divide. Both faith facilities received legal aid from the Christian Coalition of America, a historically conservative organization, who saw the ban as an infringement on “Christians,” who “recognize the biblical mandate to care for God’s creation and protect our children’s future.”

Similar to First Nation Tribes across the U.S. who employed their constitutional right to protect sacred lands, citing the Free Exercise Clause which states, “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability,” faith leaders are taking a stand for solar. Some of whom have been forced to break the law in the process.

In a defiant reaction to a Duke Energy supported North Carolina Bill which barred faith facilities from the third-party financing of solar energy, Rev. Nelson Johnson of North Carolina’s Faith Community Church installed panels on his Greensboro facility. "This giant monopoly…should not be entitled to the energy from the sun, which God has given to all of us," Rev. Johnson vehemently expressed.

Is it time for the U.S. Government to uphold a faith tradition’s constitutional right to care for creation when it comes to solar panels?

Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside. Click here to email Ryan.


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