So-called religious liberty bills

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, “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.




About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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2 Responses to So-called religious liberty bills

  1. daniel hull says:

    I wish you would opine on the often-heard claim from Christians and Jews (and others) – that Islam is not a true religion, but a political ideology masquerading as a religion, and a political ideology that is incompatible with the Constitution of the United States. Incompatible because Islam’s political foundation is Sharia law, as opposed to United States Constitutional law. The mainstream liberal media rarely if ever mentions this obvious difference, much less carry on an intelligent debate about it, for to do so would be politically incorrect and “offensive” to Muslims living amongst us. But in my opinion, we ignore this growing threat to Constitutional law at our peril. Admittedly not much of a threat yet, but if liberal (Democrat) members of Congress have their way in future administrations and allow a huge influx of Muslims into the U.S. as is happening now in Europe, our great and great-great grandchildren will wonder why in the hell we let it happen. Think the country is divided now? Think two generations ahead if Sharia is the law of the land in the “blue”half of the country. Daniel Hull ………….. still playing Paul Revere

    • Islam is as genuine a religion as Christianity and Judaism.

      The charge you’ve heard arises from the folly of assessing one paradigm against the standards of another. (Consider a football enthusiast criticizing baseball for having foul lines at right angles instead of parallel.) Islam is a combined political/religious system, as was Christianity during the Dark Ages. (Ancient Judaism was as well, though the second century CE diaspora made that moot until modern Israel. Martin Luther and Enlightenment philosophers—though for different reasons—influenced a dissolution of the Christian holistic system, leaving civic and religious components to go their own ways. Consequently, Christianity could then be accurately criticized by Muslims as omitting Allah in political life, while Islam could be accurately criticized by Christians as being as political as religious. Because of radical Islamists, it’s easy to see why some non-Muslims choose to describe Islam as not a “genuine” religion at all, but a political ideology camouflaged by a religion-like veneer.

      I find this topic interesting in part because American Christianity, though it has benefitted handsomely from America’s imperfect church-state separation, invariably edges toward recombining politics and religion. As I’ve argued in a previous post (“Islam—3,” Oct. 7, 2016), perfecting that separation in the U.S. can reduce Christians’ fears about Shariah law. In other words, pressure toward being a “Christian nation” endangers freedom of and from religion.

      (Bearing on this topic are, among other posts in this blog: An Islam series, Jun.28, 2016; Sep. 14, 2016; and Oct. 7, 2016 already cited. A pair on Christian’s pushing their values on others and often commandeering public resources to do it: Sep. 4, 2015; and Sep. 13, 2015; A pair on national praying: May 1, 2014; and Feb. 9, 2015.)

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