The Bible Tells Me What?

Posted on March 26, 2018 by Dennis M. Toft

Over the past few months the intersection of religious principles and environmental protection has become a topic of public dialogue.   Religious beliefs have also been invoked in recent cases seeking to block pipeline projects or protect endangered species.  Even more recently, the press has reported on statements by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt which suggest that religious freedom could now form the basis of challenging permit denials.  Are we at the point where environmental lawyers need to study religion in order to represent their clients?

The recent public discourse about the intersection of environmental protection and religious principles started in 2015 when Pope Francis published his encyclical Laudato Si. The Pope explained that protection of the environment is part of God’s plan.  In this context the Pope argued that it is important to address global warming because of its impact on the planet and disproportionate effect on the poor and disadvantaged.

EPA Administrator Pruitt is reported to have a different view.   This is based upon a literal reading of the Book of Genesis.  It says God has given humans dominion over the earth, and the belief that as a result humankind has the right to manage and cultivate the earth’s resources for its benefit.   This New Republic explained these differing viewpoints in an article by Emily Atkin entitled “Scott Pruitt vs. The Pope” dated February 27, 2018.

The religious principles proffered by Pope Francis are reflected in legal theories advanced in a number of recent cases.  For instance in Adorers of the Blood of Christ v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission  (EDPA, Case No 5:17-cv-03163 JLS)  a religious order challenged FERC’s approval of a pipeline crossing the order’s  property by asserting that the property is sacred to their beliefs and that the pipeline would contribute to global warming.  Similarly, in Crowe Indian Tribe v. Zinke (D Mont. Case No. 9:17-cv-00089DLC-JCL) the plaintiffs challenged a regulation delisting the Yellowstone Grizzly Bear as an endangered species asserting the importance of that species to the practice of their religion.  These cases assert claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C.  2000bb.  This statute prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion unless it furthers a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.  Another example is Standing Rock Sioux Tribe v. Army Corps of Engineers, 239 F.Supp. 3d 77 (D.D.C. 2017).  In that decision, the Court rejected a request for an injunction seeking to block construction of a pipeline across a lake, finding that construction of the pipeline did not create a substantial burden on the plaintiffs’ exercise of their religious beliefs.

Looking at the legal theory in these cases and invoking the religious views attributed to EPA Administrator Pruitt, is it possible that someone could challenge the denial of a permit on the grounds that it imposes a substantial burden on their religious belief that natural resources are subject to human dominion and are there to be exploited? While case law to date would not seem to support such a theory, in 2018 it seems less farfetched than in the past.

Religion and the Environment: Reconciling Apples and Oranges

Posted on June 5, 2013 by James Holtkamp

Setting policy for environmental protection is a bit like mediating the discussion between a father and daughter about her shaggy-haired boyfriend.  Each has a very different perspective – the father looks at the boyfriend with the cold eye of logic (does he have a job- will he ever get a job?) and the daughter sees her suitor as a warm and caring individual (but I love him, Daddy!).  Neither is willing (or sometimes even able) to understand the point of view of the other.

Project proponents often cite additional jobs, taxes and other material benefits in response to concerns about environmental damage from the project.  Opponents argue that the protection of environmental values is important because- well, they are just important.  Quantification of inherently unmeasurable values, such as the cost of illness or death or the extinction of an obscure species resulting from human activities, is at best a clumsy exercise, notwithstanding the legions of PhDs in economics that have tried.  Thus, comparison of the economic benefits with the environmental disbenefits of a particular project or policy is at bottom an unsatisfying exercise because neither side is willing or able to speak the “language” of the other.  This has been especially true in the conversations about climate change, and given the staggering implications of climate change for human society and the environment, those conversations need to be mutually understandable.

So, what common “language” can mediate conflicting world views on environmental issues?  Religion is increasingly serving as a framework for mutual understanding and communication to facilitate resolution of environmental issues.  The debate over man’s impact on the earth under this approach is cast in terms of the sanctity of all creation coupled with a divine mandate for mankind to care for it. 

The notion that human beings have an innate, solemn and God-given responsibility to care for each other and the world they live in is expressed in all of the great religious traditions. For example, in Genesis, God sees that his creation was “very good” and gives man “dominion” over it. (Genesis 1:26, 28, 31).  The Koran commands, “Do no mischief on the earth, after it has been set in order.” (7:56).  Indeed, there are some who suggest that environmentalism is itself a religion insofar as it “shapes a person’s very concept of his or her purpose and meaning in the world and other core beliefs relating to human existence.” 

Can a religion-based ethos of stewardship over creation and care for one’s neighbor solve environmental conflicts?  It can certainly help restore the words “balanced” and “responsibility” to their normal meanings.   It can provide a framework for talking about economic, health and lifestyle benefits to individual human beings, as well as protection of vulnerable ecosystems and esthetic values, based on something other than blind adherence to the laws of economics on the one hand and reflexive opposition on the other.