Faith Demystified – Living Without Religion
I was admitted to the hospital recently. As part of the admittance process I was asked to state a religious preference. I surprised myself by saying, “None.” For the first sixty-one years of my life I participated in public acts of worship at least fifty times each year. I spent seven years in academic preparation for ministry, plus several more years after I was ordained. I spent 20 years as a pastor and regional church administrator. Religion has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember. So why would I choose to claim no religious affiliation?
In recent years I have become increasingly unhappy with the Church. Calling one’s self a Christian today seems to indicate a belief in ignorance, bigotry, superstition, fanaticism, and self-righteous zealotry. There was a time when there were progressive voices in the Church that stood against the dark tide of this hateful fanaticism, but those voices have grown strangely silent. Never has it been so embarrassing, or intellectually offensive, to call myself a Christian. That does not mean that I am embarrassed to proclaim Jesus as Lord. I am only embarrassed to be in any way associated with the Church that seems to have lost Jesus all together. There seems to be no Christ in Christian. Those who thump the Bible the loudest seem never to have actually read it. The raw, unbridled ignorance is appalling. The arrogance is stultifying. The self-righteous zealotry is insufferable.
As I contemplated my choice of no religious affiliation at the hospital, I realized that I had made the correct call. What do I need with a religion? As I ran my mental checklist there was nothing that any religion could offer me.
I am aware of my own mortality and of my own health issues. I know that one day I will die, whether that death may come in fifteen days, or fifteen years. I do not believe that I will live twenty more years, and would not wish to do so unless I could be vigorous and productive. Until my death I will live every day. And then die without either sadness or fear. Life is not measured by its longevity. Many live long and useless lives, and die without ever having lived.
I do not need a priestly presence to utter magic incantations, or to perform symbolic rituals over me. For all such things are simply an illusion that gives comfort to the fearful. Life and death are so much bigger than these illusions.
I do not need a shoulder to cry on. In times of illness, loss, or despair I will survive and even thrive. I know how to be strong. I can find comfort without some religious illusion. Life is grand beyond measure. Even death does not dismay. There is nothing sad about death. It is the inevitable end of life. I do not need a grief counselor as there is no grief. And when it comes, death will be a remarkable experience.
I do not need to rail at the unfairness of life, for nothing in life is fair. We all have our obstacles. We all take our lumps. An old proverb says, “I complained that I had no shoes, until I saw the man with no feet
And most certainly, I do not need some hillbilly preacher to come and save my soul, filling my final hours with ludicrous superstition and ignorance in the process. I do not need to be manipulated into faith, or be forced into making a confession. I do not need to work some arrogant preacher’s checklist before I exit my life. Those who would save other people’s souls are nothing but scalp hunters. They think that they have the power over salvation or damnation. They think that they can work their magic with God and in doing so to earn their own divine reward. Surely these are the most arrogant and delusional of all “Christians.”
So spare me all of this religious nonsense. Let me go with a clear head and a sense of fulfillment that comes from a life well lived. Let me study science and all manner of human knowledge. Let me explore the cosmos and learn of its wonders. Let me read great literature and learn what it is to be human. Let me walk and talk with my fellow travelers as we make our way on this journey of life. Let me find God in the eyes of a friend or the face of a stranger. And together may we fulfill our lives.
Faith Demystified – The Root of Religious Discord
Religious discord comes from bumping into belief systems that do not match our own, however illusory our own systems of belief may be. When I was a pastor, there was a young woman who had been baptized and raised Presbyterian. She was marrying a Baptist and joining his church. The problem for me was not that she was leaving the church, the problem was that the Baptists required that she be rebaptized!
The Presbyterians have a view of baptism that made perfect sense to me. Children of believers are baptized as infants. In this baptism both the parents and the congregation vow to raise this child in the Christian faith. This baptism is an act of God, and not human will. In this act God claims the child as part of the community of community. Baptism in the Presbyterian Church is seen as complete and final in and of itself. There is no need to have the baptism “confirmed” when the child reaches the age of consent. We Presbyterians sometimes slip and talk about “confirmation classes” for adolescents, but only because that term is so prevalent in the broader Christian community. What we mean to say is that there are “commissioning classes” for adolescents which signify that the child is now ready to participate more actively in the life, worship and governance of the church. The one new right established at the time of commissioning is the right to vote and hold office in the church.
Baptists have a very different view of Baptism, and it clashes radically with the Presbyterian view. It is not that one side is “right” and the other side is “wrong.” It is just that these two sets of doctrine cannot mesh together.
To join the Baptist Church, this young woman was required to undergo a Baptist baptism. Presbyterian doctrine eschews any form of rebaptism, believing that the first baptism is sufficient for the believer’s entire life.
If this woman from my church did not undergo a Baptist baptism, she would be only a visitor in the Baptist church, and not a full participant. Baptist believe that only believer baptism, entered into by someone old enough to consent to the proceedings, is valid in the eyes of God.
Also, of course, Baptist use much more water than Presbyterians. Baptists generally practice a full body dunking, while Presbyterians simply sprinkle water on the head. I will agree with the Baptists that the very word “baptize” means to dip or dunk. But personally I do not believe that the amount of water used in a baptism is of any more significance than the amount of food consumed during communion, and a church does not need to spread a full meal in order to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
While I fully understood why this young woman needed to undergo a Baptist baptism, it pained me because it felt like it was a denial of her upbringing in the Presbyterian Church. It felt like the Baptists were saying, “Your whole spiritual life as a Presbyterian was not legitimate. Now you must start over as a Baptist, unlearn everything that the Presbyterians taught you, and learn our Baptist ways.” Let me be clear that this message was not coming from the Baptist Church, but playing inside me head.
In summary, there is nothing wrong with the Presbyterian notion of baptism, and nothing wrong with the Baptist notion of baptism. The problem is that when we try to combine them there are discordant notes and emotional turmoil.
As part of this discourse on religious discord, In all honesty I need to raise my personal disdain for the Mormon religion. I am a strong believer in religious liberty, and I would never want to constrain or harm another religious community. I would never discriminate against a Mormon or refuse to vote for them solely because of their religious affiliation. But my personal vexation with the Mormon religion is that it presents to the world a counterfeit version of Christianity. The Mormons have usurped our Christian language, our Christian symbols, our Christian music, and even our Christian sacraments. In places where Mormonism is strong, people confuse the two very divergent religions and hence fail to understand Christianity or its message. It does not help that the Mormons insist on placing the name of Jesus in that religions official title, with the words “Jesus Christ” made bigger than the other words. It feels like they are saying to all of Christendom, “Screw you! We are the real church!”
A good example of this religious divergence is how the Mormon religion practices baptism. The Mormon’s do extensive genealogical research. A large reason for this genealogical research is to create lists of people who are long dead so that these deceased may be baptized. When we hear “baptism,” this sounds like Christian baptism, but in practice this is something very different. Nowhere in the whole history or doctrine of the Christian Church does it talk about baptizing dead people. This is the kind of practice that causes me to say that Mormonism represents a counterfeit version of Christianity. On the outside it looks Christian, but when you dig deeper it seems anything but.
I will cite one more example of religious discord, this time related to Holy Communion (Eucharist). The Presbyterians believe in a free and open communion. Anyone who confesses Jesus Christ as their lord and savior are welcomed to participate. If I think in terms of rules and regulations for a moment, I might also add that the believer should have been baptized. Communion is an outpouring of God’s grace upon the assembled faithful. It is the Lord’s Table and not our own.
Whenever I am worshiping in a Catholic Church there is always a dilemma. I know full well that I am not welcome at a Catholic communion because, first of all, I am not a Catholic. The Presbyterian notion that the Eucharist is open to all of God’s people is shattered.
But furthermore, even if I was a Catholic, I would still not be eligible to participate in the Eucharist. I am divorced, and that is a disqualification. To be restored to the Catholic Church’s good graces, at least in the days before Pope Francis, it was necessary for a Catholic to first pursue and complete the divorce proceedings in the civil courts. And after that, the believer would need to appeal to Rome for an ecclesiastical annulment of the marriage. Such a process could take decades and cost tens of thousands of dollars.
And thirdly, even if I was a Catholic, and even if I was not divorced, there is still the issue of completing all of the pre-Eucharist requirements, such as attendance at Confession. There are sorts of things that need to be done in order for a Catholic to get his or ticket punched so as to be ready for communion. So, the Eucharist is not an outpouring of God’s grace, but rather a reward for loyalty and good behavior granted to Catholics in good standing.
Thus, the Catholic Eucharist turn on its head everything that I as a Presbyterian hold dear. Again, it is not that the Presbyterians are right and the Catholics are wrong. It is just that we have two different and radically divergent versions of what the Eucharist means. Normally, when worshiping in a Catholic Church, I will take communion because I believe in the Presbyterian rules which say that I am eligible, and because I want to share in the Lord’s Table with a larger group of Christians that are beyond my own community.
The sad part of all of this discord is that it really does not mean a thing. It is like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton exchanging insults instead of focusing on policies that actually matter. All of this is a great distraction that keeps the Church from being the Church. None of this is going to feed hungry children, rescue refugees, or free people held in human trafficking.
When the Church cannot come together even over such common themes as the sacraments, what hope is there to talk about science vs. fundamentalism, gay marriage, economic disparities, refugees, or reproductive freedoms?
This article has only dealt with discord within religious traditions. We have not even mentioned discord between various religions.
In short, religious beliefs can create a climate of discord. There are endless disputes over the minutest points of doctrine. There is the obsession with the details of symbolic acts that in reality have no importance. There is the doctrinal rigidity that says that my understandings are correct, and therefore yours are all wrong. Wars have been fought and gallons of ink spilled throughout Christian history just trying to define the Trinity.
Islam was born out of officially Christian territory. An important historical fact was that the nations of Islam generally rejected the officially sanctioned language used to describe the Trinity. Islam recognizes Jesus as a prophet of God. But for the Muslim who could not call Jesus the “Son of God,” or embrace any sort of Trinitarian language, the only solution was to reject Christianity and start their own religion.
Faith Demystified – Richard Dawkins and Atheism
Richard Dawkins is a world class evolutionary biologist. Lately he has been seen as one of atheism’s greatest proponents. In his 2006 book The God Delusion he contends that there is no god and that religious faith is a delusion. In the same year he founded the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.
Dawkins is a radical skeptic, and we need skeptics. Skepticism insures that science is always self-correcting. Without radical skepticism we would be continuously duped by all sorts of falsehoods.
Skepticism is also an antidote to the general puffery of religious doctrines. In religion there is normally no proof of anything. Believers are asked to accept religious teachings on blind faith, or to trust in “divine revelation.” Any doubt, even a healthy skepticism, is often described as a lack of faith. Typically, the faithful are not allowed to asked questions such as, “Where did Cain’s wife come from?” Asking a question like this is seen as an attack on biblical fundamentalism and therefore an attack on faith itself.
Dawkins skepticism is a great defense against uncontrolled religious puffery. And for that we should all be grateful. The only way to answer the question about Cain’s wife is to realize that the creation stories are mythological stories, and not the recounting of historical events.
Skepticism can be taken too far. Ultimate skepticism would be to not except anything without absolute proof. I cannot prove that the sun will rise tomorrow, but I would certainly expect that to happen. Spirituality begins with the concept that our reality is larger than our grasp. By contrast, Dawkins would say that if he cannot see, hear, or touch something it does not exist.
If I could have a chat with Dawkins I would share with him the following story. An astronomer images a galaxy using visible light. The image produced is real and indisputable. To Dawkins the galaxy is what is captured in that image, and nothing more. The part that Dawkins misses is that there is more to the galaxy that we cannot see in visible light. Images taken in infrared, ultraviolet, or radio waves would show a very different image, with more and different features and aspects of the galaxy. So, Dawkins original view of the galaxy in visible light is correct but not complete. There is more to the galaxy than the original image could depict.
What we see depends upon what filters we choose to use. One could say that Dawkins does not see beyond the mundane world because he lacks the necessary observational tools. Dawkins seems to be a reductionist, saying that the universe is this and no more. That reductionism is every bit as much a bias as is a religious conviction.
Modern cosmology describes a universe that is not only more bizarre than we know, but even more bizarre than we can imagine. Quantum mechanics tells us that a particle can be several places at once. M-theory tells us that there are eleven dimensions of space and time. Hawking radiation means that black holes actually evaporate. Dark energy says that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. Under these circumstances a limited field of view means that we will miss much of what is happening. There is a lot of stuff going on out there that we do not understand.
There is more than one possibility in any circumstance. Light is both a wave and a particle. An electron can be several places at once. A storm can be both helpful and hurtful depending on whom you ask. The difference between a wildflower and a weed is that one is wanted and the other is not. Propositions can be true and false at the same time. We need to be very careful when setting the bounds of the universe that we do not leave out many things that do not fit into our reductionist preconceptions. The universe could be both created and non-created. The only difference may be in the filters that we choose.
On another topic I would also like to discuss consciousness with Dawkins. This is one of the frontiers between biology and spirituality. What is consciousness? We might also call this the self, spirit or even soul, although Dawkins would resist these words. Is our consciousness simply the electronic emissions of our gray matter, or could it be something more? Is consciousness something that could be captured and stored outside of the body? Could it be transplanted like a kidney? Imagine the possibility that a consciousness could be transferred from one body to another, or from a body to a computer chip. This is a question that needs to be answered in the near future.
I wanted to share with you a statement by the blogger Rachel Held Evans. I love her way of reading scripture. Her blog can be found at www.rachelheldevans.com and is well worth checking out.
As an evangelical Christian, Rachel has shown light on some of the more ridiculous claims of fundamentalism. Particularly, she has shown very clearly how the fundamentalists have tried to usurp the Christian values discussion, and how they are trying to control our courts and legislatures in order to make their distorted values the law of the land.
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Editor’s Note: Rachel Held Evans is a popular blogger from Dayton, Tennessee, and author of “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.”
By Rachel Held Evans, Special to CNN
On “The Daily Show” recently, Jon Stewart grilled Mike Huckabee about a TV ad in which Huckabee urged voters to support “biblical values” at the voting box.
When Huckabee said that he supported the “biblical model of marriage,” Stewart shot back that “the biblical model of marriage is polygamy.”
And there’s a big problem, Stewart went on, with reducing “biblical values” to one or two social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, while ignoring issues such as poverty and immigration reform.
It may come as some surprise that as an evangelical Christian, I cheered Stewart on from my living room couch.
As someone who loves the Bible and believes it to be the inspired word of God, I hate seeing it reduced to an adjective like Huckabee did. I hate seeing my sacred text flattened out, edited down and used as a prop to support a select few political positions and platforms.
And yet evangelicals have grown so accustomed to talking about the Bible this way that we hardly realize we’re doing it anymore. We talk about “biblical families,” “biblical marriage,” “biblical economics,” “biblical politics,” “biblical values,” “biblical stewardship,” “biblical voting,” “biblical manhood,” “biblical womanhood,” even “biblical dating” to create the impression that the Bible has just one thing to say on each of these topics – that it offers a single prescriptive formula for how people of faith ought to respond to them.
But the Bible is not a position paper. The Bible is an ancient collection of letters, laws, poetry, proverbs, histories, prophecies, philosophy and stories spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own.
When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word, we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don’t quite fit our preferences and presuppositions. In an attempt to simplify, we force the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone and turn a complicated, beautiful, and diverse holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed. More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.
Nowhere is this more evident than in conversations surrounding “biblical womanhood.”
Growing up in the Bible Belt, I received a lot of mixed messages about the appropriate roles of women in the home, the church and society, each punctuated with the claim that this or that lifestyle represented true “biblical womanhood.”
In my faith community, popular women pastors such as Joyce Meyer were considered unbiblical for preaching from the pulpit in violation of the apostle Paul’s restriction in 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent”), while Amish women were considered legalistic for covering their heads in compliance with his instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:5 (“Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head”).
Pastors told wives to submit to their husbands as the apostle Peter instructed in 1 Peter 3:1, but rarely told them to avoid wearing nice jewelry as the apostle instructs them just one sentence later in 1 Peter 3:3. Despite the fact that being single was praised by both Jesus and Paul, I learned early on that marriage and motherhood were my highest callings, and that Proverbs 31 required I keep a home as tidy as June Cleaver’s.
This didn’t really trouble me until adulthood, when I found myself in a childless egalitarian marriage with a blossoming career and an interest in church leadership and biblical studies. As I wrestled with what it meant to be a woman of faith, I realized that, despite insistent claims that we don’t “pick and choose” from the Bible, any claim to a “biblical” lifestyle requires some serious selectivity.
After all, technically speaking, it is “biblical” for a woman to be sold by her father to pay off debt, “biblical” for a woman to be required to marry her rapist, “biblical” for her to be one of many wives.
So why are some Bible passages lifted out and declared “biblical,” while others are explained away or simply ignored? Does the Bible really present a single prescriptive lifestyle for all women?
These were the questions that inspired me to take a page from A.J. Jacobs, author of “The Year of Living Biblically”, and try true biblical womanhood on for size—literally, no “picking and choosing.”
This meant, among other things, growing out my hair, making my own clothes, covering my head whenever I prayed, abstaining from gossip, remaining silent in church (unless I was “prophesying,” of course), calling my husband “master,” even camping out in my front yard during my period to observe the Levitical purity laws that rendered me unclean.
During my yearlong experiment, I interviewed a variety of women practicing biblical womanhood in different ways — an Orthodox Jew, an Amish housewife, even a polygamist family – and I combed through every commentary I could find, reexamining the stories of biblical women such as Deborah, Ruth, Hagar, Tamar, Mary Magdalene, Priscilla and Junia.
My goal was to playfully challenge this idea that the Bible prescribes a single lifestyle for how to be a woman of faith, and in so doing, playfully challenge our overuse of the term “biblical.” I did this not out of disdain for Scripture, but out of love for it, out of respect for the fact that interpreting and applying the Bible is a messy, imperfect and – at times – frustrating process that requires humility and grace as we wrestle the text together.
The fact of the matter is, we all pick and choose. We’re all selective in our interpretation and application of the biblical text. The better question to ask one another is why we pick and choose the way that we do, why we emphasis some passages and not others. This, I believe, will elevate the conversation so that we’re using the Bible, not as a blunt weapon, but as a starting point for dialogue.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rachel Held Evans.
- My Take: The danger of calling behavior ‘biblical’ (religion.blogs.cnn.com)
- A Year of Biblical Womanhood: The Long-Awaited Review (pinkbriefcase.wordpress.com)
Conservative Christians, especially those of the biblical fundamentalist variety, will tell us that America is a theocracy under their God’s rule. They will tell us that America is a Christian nation, born of a divine covenant. They will attempt to use government and civil authority to compel us to live according to their God’s design. They will proclaim that if only we will follow their God, their God will bless us and our nation. But if we should stray from their God’s ways we shall be destroyed.
There is also a Roman Catholic brand of fundamentalism that finds its foundation not in the scriptures, but in Roman Catholic doctrine on such issues as reproductive freedom. Often biblical fundamentalists will unite with doctrinal fundamentalists to impose their social agendas upon society.
The conservative Christians will attack modern science, and attempt to replace it with their own religious mythology. They oppose the teachings of Darwin, even though Darwin’s work has prevailed against more than one hundred and fifty years of scientific challenge. If these biblical literalists were consistent, instead of just opposing evolution and Charles Darwin, they would need to oppose Copernicus, Galileo and all that those who have followed for the last five hundred years.
The biblical world view consists of a flat earth covered by the firmament, which was an inverted dome, and separating the waters from above the firmament from the waters below the firmament (Genesis 1:7-8). This view of the earth can be envisioned as a dinner plate covered by an inverted salad bowl. Furthermore, the earth was created in 4004 BC according to Bishop Ussher’s literalist chronology.
In the same manner as these fundamentalist attack science and attempt to replace it with their own religious mythology, these fundamentalist endeavored to stifle our democracy and to replace it with a fundamentalist theocracy which they would control. If any American really believes that they would like to live in a theocracy, they should live for a while in a country such as Iran or Israel just to see what that would be like.
The conservative Christians will tell you that America was founded by Christians for Christian purposes. But the part that the conservative Christians will not tell you is that America was settled by religious dissidents who were seeking religious freedom. The Reformation in Europe brought in its wake centuries of religious warfare and persecutions.
The religious persecution that drove settlers from Europe to the British North American colonies sprang from the conviction, held by Protestants and Catholics alike, that uniformity of religion must exist in any given society. This conviction rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens. Nonconformists could expect no mercy and might be executed as heretics. The dominance of the concept, denounced by Roger Williams as “enforced uniformity of religion,” meant majority religious groups who controlled political power punished dissenters in their midst. In some areas Catholics persecuted Protestants, in others Protestants persecuted Catholics, and in still others Catholics and Protestants persecuted wayward coreligionists. Although England renounced religious persecution in 1689, it persisted on the European continent. Religious persecution, as observers in every century have commented, is often bloody and implacable and is remembered and resented for generations.
“America as a Religious Refuge: The 17th Century (Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Library of Congress Exhibition).” America as a Religious Refuge: The 17th Century (Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Library of Congress Exhibition). Web. 27 May 2012. <http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel01.html>.
Many conservative Christians seem to have forgotten the lessons learned in this violent and painful era of European history and seek to impose a new era of religious subjugation, domination and persecution. They have forgotten that religious warfare and persecutions in Europe were the result of heavy-handed governments trying to impose uniformity in religious faith and practices by force.
The freedom of religion is a core American value, born out of the lessons learned in centuries of religious conflict in Europe. Freedom of religion is essential to our democracy. It is also freedom from religion. Every American is endowed with the inalienable right to worship God in a way that they choose, and/or to avoid religion all together.
America, and its great democratic traditions, was, is and always must be, a land of religious freedom, free of religious oppression and tyranny. It must also be free of any coercive religious doctrine imposed by the government upon its citizens.
The Declaration of Independence contains these words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This great expression of human rights contains the mention of the Creator. But what people often fail to realize is that this statement is Deist and not Christian in its tone and content. Deism, as defined in Wikipedia, is,
”a religious philosophy which holds that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that the universe is the product of an intelligent creator.”
Note that this passage from the Declaration of Independence contains no appeals to religious affiliations, religious doctrines, or sacred scriptures of any type. Rather, it is born out of the Deist notion that God can be perceived through logic and observation of the world. The Deist God of American civil religion is much like the “higher power” in a twelve-step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous. The Deist God of American civil religion exists without sacred scriptures, creeds, sacred history, or religious affiliation. The God of the Deists is abstract, formless and devoid of doctrine. Therefore, no one may presume to speak for God, or to cite divine sanction for their own personal political agenda in the public life and governance of our nation.
We are a free people, free to worship God in our own way, or not at all. We do not need “permission” from religious zealots or ecclesiastical authorities to make our own religious or spiritual choices. Our government must, under the constitution, be neutral on all religious questions, and must always defend our religious liberties against all oppression, either civil or ecclesiastical.
NOTE: The recent political campaign by Rick Santorum, wherein he tried to deny reproductive services to workers at Roman Catholic related institutions was not an act of “religious freedom” for the Roman Catholic Church, but rather would be an act of religious oppression by the Roman Catholic Church against its non-sectarian workers. The Roman Catholic Church has the right to create any rules it wants for those under religious orders. It also has the right to encourage various religious practices to its membership.
But it has no right to dictate the reproductive choices for a any workers not under religious orders. For example, a Methodist or non church going accountant working at a Roman Catholic Church related hospital must not be denied the right to a vasectomy or an abortion because such practice might run counter to Roman Catholic doctrine. And the Roman Catholic Church has no right to deny health insurance coverage to this hypothetical employee for these purpose. If the hospital is hiring from the general public, then it is operating in the public domain, and therefore must follow all of the rules for all public employers.