We already live in a country where religious groups exert a lot of influence in their respective communities. Red states, obviously. Hasidic enclaves, definitely. Even places like Salt Lake City, where Mormons migrated in droves.
But what would happen if a whole town was basically bought out for one religious group and the people there were expected to follow religious law?
That’s the premise of Ave Maria, Florida, a town that was purchased nearly a decade ago by Domino’s Pizza founder (and hard-core Catholic) Tom Monaghan, who wanted to turn it into a religious haven:
… this means that stores will be unable to sell pornography, pharmacies will be barred from selling condoms or other forms of birth control, and cable TV will not be allowed to carry X-rated channels.
Ave Maria isn’t the only city like this and the question is whether religious law in these places will take a backseat to American law, as it must:
… “Monaghan got on our radar in 2004 when he was first beginning to consider building Ave Maria as a self-contained theocracy,” [Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida] told Truthout. For the ACLU, the big issue is whether any government authority will be transferred to a religious organization or whether the community will be governed by religious rules. Simon notes, “People have a perfect right to be with their own kind. I may not think that Balkanized, homogeneous communities are the best way to live, but people have the right to live in a way that is comfortable for them.”
“There were a lot of big questions,” Simon continues. Among them: whether medical care would be dictated by religious rules, for example, what if someone with a Do Not Resuscitate order had an accident of some kind? Would the hospital respect the order? What advice would a rape victim get? What kind of referrals? Would she have access to information about abortion or emergency contraceptives if she wanted them?
“We want to respect people’s choices,” Simon adds, “but when government gives authority to religious groups to govern in accordance with religious rules, it goes too far and violates the Constitution.”
The ACLU is keeping an eye on the city in case any of these shenanigans becomes reality. Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State also voices concern but suggests reasons a religious city like this won’t succeed:
“Historically,” Boston adds, “one of two things typically happens in places run by religious denominations. First, outsiders often move in and change the character of the area. Secondly, these communities tend to be riven by internal dissent.”
Even if such a city “worked,” no doubt there would be other problems that quickly come into play. It’s like winning the lottery: You may not have money problems anymore, but all the other ones are still there.
Here’s another question I’d love to know the answer to: Why would anyone, even Catholics, want to live in a place like this? That goes for anyone who’s passionate about a particular issue: Why surround yourself 24/7 by people who agree with you? You would have no one left to persuade. “Preaching to the choir” is only effective if that choir is going to spread your message even further — but if you’re living in a bubble of your own making, then your religious beliefs would likely become a non-issue.
For that reason, a place like Ave Maria could inadvertently make people less Catholic, not more.