The Perils Of Extreme Religious Liberty And Protecting Children With Marci Hamilton 

Religious liberty is one of the founding fathers’ ideals, but the idea of religious liberty and its practice produces results that can cause great harm. Marci A. Hamilton is the founder and CEO of CHILD USA, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit academic think tank dedicated to interdisciplinary, evidence-based research to improve laws and public policy to end child abuse and neglect. She is a leading expert on clergy sex abuse and child sex abuse statutes of limitation (SOL). She is also a leading religious liberty scholar and Professor of Practice in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches Constitutional Law and Law, Religion, and Politics. 

Hamilton is the author of God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty (2014, Cambridge University Press, 2d ed), Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (2012, Cambridge University Press), and co-author of Children and the Law (2017, Carolina Academic Press). 

Convention on the Rights of the Child 

Hamilton discusses how we can protect children from the perils of religious extremism and informs us that the United States has never ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. She talks about the fundamental rights for children within the convention, which are rights we recognize on the edge of our law, but it is not as focused on the child. One of Child USA’s priorities is to persuade legislators to ratify the convention finally.  

She talks with us about the pervasive trafficking of children through child sex abuse materials online or geographic trafficking of them. The disparity in power is between children and those who abuse them. The fact that we consider children to be adults at 18 is problematic in many ways. Hamilton discusses this example in the Jeffrey Epstein case, where he preyed on people who were just over 18, so they were not benefiting from the changes in the law on child sex abuse. At Child USA, they consider anyone up to 25 or 26 to be within their purview because, as Hamilton tells us, “They are equally incapable of withstanding the kind of sophisticated manipulation that perpetrators have.”  Thus, they have supported the Adult Survivors Acts that create access to justice for adults who were victims of sexual abuse and assault. 

Age Isn’t Just a Number 

We talk about how this also applies to cults because when someone is 18 and a legal “adult,” they are vulnerable to cult leaders who solicit their trust funds or educational funds, and then they become labor trafficking enslaved people.  

Hamilton talks about building the rights to keep institutions from using their power to entrap others. In these disparate power relationships, it is essential to consider why the victims feel they can’t speak up, come forward, or exercise their needed power.  

Out of Touch and Out of Date 

We discuss the law being about 100 years out of date to what we now understand of the workings of the human mind. Additionally, there needs to be consideration of who the predator is because priests, teachers, and the president of the United States, for example, all have enormous power over others, and that needs to be considered. Unfortunately, there is a movement on the far right to protect the religious institution at the cost of the individual believer.  

The Influence Continuum is also vital because all cults/institutions are along the continuum. Some are benign, where people have informed consent and can use their conscience and critical thinking, talk to ex-members, and leave without fear of reprisal. In others, people are controlled by autocratic leaders, and this creates immense consequences. We saw this with the January 6th insurrection and the firm belief they held that their leader was under attack and needed to fight back when they were co-opted into authoritarianism.  

Follow the Money 

Following the money is essential when it concerns children and co-opting them into abusive situations. Hamilton talks about children being sexually abused in religious institutions and the religious organizations’  belief that they should be protected by law against being liable for the harm they have done. They aren’t motivated by remorse. They are motivated by reputation and money. Others buy into this because they think religion and religious liberty are always good, which they can be, but it is demonstrably harmful in so many ways.  

This is not helped by the concrete tie between church and state in that money is donated to politicians from religious groups, cementing the groups’ power. The crisis within the Catholic Church is an example of how this tie corrupts justice because Hamilton tells us there has not been a single Congressional hearing on clergy sex abuse. Other countries gathered information and studied this, including Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The United States politicians are so fearful they are kowtowing to the bishops rather than holding them to account, which ultimately forsakes the children who suffered and still suffer today because of the abuse.  

The Importance of Civics Education 

Hamilton discusses how children need to be seen as human beings from birth rather than the property of their parents, which is how they are currently treated in numerous settings. There was a time when they were property the parents had 100 percent control over.  That is changing with CHILD USA leading the way in the civil rights movement for children. 

Additionally, young people are not being educated about civics, including the separation of church and state, but their brains are being rewired as they become addicted to social media platforms. Hamilton talks about how the internet has devolved into the worst instincts in human nature, in which billionaires use their wealth as an excuse to harm everyone. Regulation and especially legal liability are needed to protect the vulnerable. 

Dragging Us Into Hell 

We discussed Facebook having full-time lobbyists in Washington, D.C., with multiple people assigned to Congresspeople. Hamilton talks about how social media platforms position themselves as saving everyone when, in actuality, “they are dragging us all down into hell,” Because they are unregulated and unaccountable to the larger public good. Their algorithms are designed to engender anger, because it is more likely to draw attention, and then AI compounds that anger as it guides the user into the rabbit holes.  

Hamilton talks about her time clerking for United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra O’Connor and how Hamilton was approached repeatedly by people asking how O’Connor was going to rule on the abortion cases. The answer was always what O’Connor had always said: that she would not overturn Roe. However, the right-wing Federalist Society took fire and became much like a cult in that era. 

Dismantling Roe v. Wade 

This led to the recent dismantling of Roe v. Wade, with opinions written by the justices that Hamilton feels are more theological than legal with respect to privacy rights. Additionally, Hamilton discusses how the progressives came to accept the secular label, with conservative groups taking the high ground because they are religious. Unfortunately, spiritual progressives did not stand up and say, “Actually, I’m religious, but I don’t believe what you do.” We talk about how out of touch the Supreme Court is and how the justices are controlled by a Catholic mindset, in which women are supposed to have as many children as God will allow. However, they will not get the medical care they need, which has catastrophic consequences, including the death of women and fetuses.  

Priestly Matters 

In Rome, the bastion of Catholicism, German priests were called to the Vatican because they were performing gay marriages. They are not embracing what they’re being told to embrace about women’s health care, and they were liberals in the church. They were told to stop, but then in the United States, we have some of the most conservative bishops who want zero exceptions for abortion bans. We talk about the false belief systems being disseminated within the United States and their hold on people. Progressive activities are not messaging people about what is happening so we can reach enlightenment, care for the sick and the poor, and give women equal rights and appropriate healthcare.  

Hamilton characterizes this not as an information war but a religious war to make the country anti-abortion, anti-women’s rights, anti-children’s rights, and anti-LGBTQ rights. It is the imposition of someone else’s faith on others that becomes problematic. People need to stand up and declare what they believe and not accept that imposition from someone else. 

We talk about the right of everyone to believe what they want, but that does not mean they can do anything they want. The harm inherent in some of the rules we are living under now is not being considered. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is harmful in this way because it looks at only the individual and the burden on the individual of the law. It does not consider the harm to third parties.  

Children are Collateral Damage Until You Press Hard Enough 

Hamilton discusses with us the legislation in Pennsylvania to create a window for child sex abuse victims and the difficulty they are having moving it forward. It is to be voted on in November now. It should be a straightforward, bipartisan effort, but as Hamilton says, “Both houses now have created political theater that has stymied this movement.” It is an excellent example of how politicians value their own political needs over those of children and victims.  

Hamilton summarizes her message: “I would say that the single most important message of my entire career is that a religious group that’s harming others is not worthy of deference.” She discusses how we can help with funding CHILD USA, via donations and share the message with our individual networks. 


CHILD USA: The National Think Tank for Child Protection

Child Sexual Abuse Statute of Limitation Reforms

Educational Neglect

Medical Neglect

The Convention for the Rights of the Child (US government has not ratified yet)