Here in Georgia and in state legislatures around the country, “religious liberty” bills are once again in the air. These bills propose to protect rights which proponents claim are slipping away—Americans’ religious freedom. Well, not really “religious freedom,” for that’s not being threatened. What is at stake is religious hegemony wherein the term freedom of religion means exemption from enforcement of a public policy given to whole faith groups or individuals who find the policy offensive to their religion. Millions of Christians across America agree with James Dobson’s upsetting, though unsubstantiated allegation, “We’re losing our religious liberty.”
The First Amendment (extended to states by the Fifteenth) of the Constitution protects “free exercise of religion” from government. However, this religious right is not unlimited. A government can rule that some behaviors (though not beliefs and opinions) may be prohibited as long as they are not targeted specifically toward a religion. For example, growing out of a Mormon case, in 1879 the Supreme Court in Reynolds v. United States ruled a federal law against polygamy to be constitutional. Since then a growing sensitivity to humane treatment has lead American public policy to erect legal barriers to discrimination against women, non-whites, then gays. President George H. W. Bush captured the sentiment in calling for a “kinder, gentler nation.” People could feel what they wished, but certain kinds of discriminatory treatment, in turn, became illegal.
Does such public policy reduce people’s freedom? Of course, for some people it does. What had been lawful freedom to mistreat others was curtailed in line with increasingly compassionate public policy. Reducing ill treatment leaves the abuser with fewer options, while increasing the rights of the abused. (Although I’m happy about that, I recognize that the choice of what or whom to protect are political issues, i.e., the “right” option is always debatable. But the politics of the legislative decision are not the subject of this post.) Just as many bigot-operated restaurants and schools offering service to the public fought what they saw as government over-reach, current fundamentalist Christians now pursue exemption from serving gays exercising their right to marry (e.g., Georgia state senator Marty Harbin; public affairs director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board Mike Griffin; both just last week). Because their motivation is one of “sincere religious belief,” they claim freedom from the public policy. (Because that convenient dodge is used so frequently, I’ll abbreviate it as “SRB.”)
Fundamentalists often argue that because “God’s law” outweighs “man’s law,” the faithful should not be bound by the human law. Easily overlooked, however, is that God’s law is God’s law only to those who have that belief. To others, including many Christians, the fundamentalists’ claim is just one of many differing opinions about God’s law. Perhaps a rose is a rose is a rose, but all SRBs are not alike. History is replete with many rules attributed to God that can be seen now to be unethical or even depraved. God-believers today disagree extensively about which beliefs should count as SRBs. The important factor (with possible legal consequences) is the degree of sincerity, not the reasonableness of the belief, though neither of which is easily judged. Still, today’s sincere protesters are not fighting laws against their beliefs and opinions or what goes on in their worship. What they are opposing is public policy against treatment of human beings in ways the public has decided as improper or inhumane.
Public policy is made by representatives of the citizenry. Fundamentalists have their say in its formation, though their religious sincerity doesn’t (or shouldn’t) earn them preeminence. Consequently, like all of us, they must conform to laws with which they disagree. Motel owners whose SRB is that unmarried persons sleeping together violates God’s law cannot demand proof of marriage from customers. Other motel owners whose SRB is that races should not mix cannot turn away a mixed-race couple. Still other motel owners whose SRB is that gay sex is an offense to God cannot inquire into the sleeping habits of same-sex customers before renting them a room. How about another motel owner’s SRB that accommodating Jews, “Christ killers in their bizarre opinion,” puts them in league with the devil? Or what if a bakery owner’s SRB is that even making a cake for a gay wedding is sinful?
Georgia, my state, is home to great numbers of fundamentalists, many of whom apparently think that in a democratic republic, SRB should be enough to exempt believers from whatever law offends them. No; let me correct that statement. They actually believe the free pass should be extended only in the case of beliefs that don’t differ markedly from those of fundamentalist Protestants. And, of course, they must be religious beliefs, not other sorts, such as equally sincere beliefs about the proper role of government in our lives, fitting income distribution, or humanist ethics, protection of the environment, honesty about human evolution, or other findings of science.
It is intriguing that fundamentalist Christians in the United States and most Muslims worldwide demand that religion be given special treatment by the civil authority. We have a Constitution that puts all religious ideology on an equal footing and certainly does not condone the powers of government being used to spread any one or any group of religious beliefs. However, in practice, we frequently act like (to paraphrase Animal Farm), “All religious faiths are equal, but some faiths are more equal than others.” I have addressed a number of these theocratic behavior from several perspectives in this blog (“Public education: Using the bully(ing) pulpit,” July 19, 2013; “Does science class include religion?” Jan. 22, 2014; “Our National Day of Prayer,” May 1, 2014; “National Prayer Breakfast 2015,” Feb. 9, 2015; “Religious freedom to refuse service?” June 5, 2015; “America chose liberty this week,” June 27, 2015; “Christian bullying (Part 1),” Sep 4, 2015; “Christian bullying (Part 2),” Sep. 13, 2015; “Religion in the public square,” Oct. 20, 2015; “Sincere religious belief,” May 24, 2016; “God-given rights—2,” Dec. 9, 2016 ).
Although I began this post with reference to Georgia’s and other states’ legislatures, the federal government may be experiencing a new push toward honoring SRB exemptions. There has been recent pressure in the U.S. House to revive a bill titled First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), HR2802, introduced by Raul Labrador in 2015. According to https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/2802, “The bill prohibits the federal government from taking discriminatory action against a person on the basis that such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that: (1) marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or (2) sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.
The theocrats are much with us.