State legislatures are busy again considering so-called “religious liberty” bills, and the year’s just begun. Over 160 bills have been filed by legislators around the country thus far. Seasoned observers, after years of watching politicians’ sausage-making, are not fooled by bills’ titles. In the case of religious liberty, it’s not that proponents really care about the important political doctrine of freedom of belief. Their interest is entitlement of Christians to have more rights than others. (In Islamic countries, that sentence works quite well by substituting one word.) Most Christian fundamentalists think little about the broad Enlightenment concept of freedom of religion, but a lot about claiming unrivaled statutory protection of their own.
Our Constitution was developed by leaders aware of widespread religious persecution and prosecution prevalent in the colonies. Curiously, schools still teach children that Puritans and Pilgrims came to America for the concept of religious freedom. They did not. They came for freedom of their own religions. Many Christians behave similarly today. Most, I think, don’t notice they’re doing so. Elected officials—by and large—rather than help them elevate their understanding of religious freedom, take the opportunity to capitalize politically on their misunderstanding.
Remember Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky, who refused to issue a marriage license to a gay couple despite the applicants’ legally guaranteed rights? She claimed her religious belief gave her the right to deny the rights of others. Neither she nor the religious leaders who flocked to her defense seemed to understand that while the personal Ms. Davis does have freedom of religion, the government official Ms. Davis does not. To applicants, Ms. Davis was the state of Kentucky. But that simple distinction was lost in the evangelical frenzy, demonstrated by, among many others, Governor Mike Huckabee, Governor Bobby Jindal, and Senator Marco Rubio, who declared: “[this is the] criminalization of Christianity,” (Huckabee); “I didn’t think I’d ever see the day when a Christian in America could go to jail because they decided to live by the precepts of their faith,” (Rubio); and “[this constitutes] jailing Christians for their religious beliefs” (Jindal). These statements were either intentionally misleading or shockingly naïve.
How would these same Christians feel about a Muslim state employee who chooses not to serve a female citizen who exposes her hair? How about a Catholic public school teacher who extols the priesthood and transubstantiation to students? Or a school principal who prays publicly before football games according to his Hindu beliefs? How about a police department that displays Allahu Akbar decals on its squad cars just because the chief or a majority of officers are Muslim? These individuals in their personal lives can believe anything they wish; they can follow those beliefs. We are duty-bound to help protect their rights to do so. The state does not have the right of religious freedom; individuals do. A person representing the state (teacher, cop, clerk, judge) cannot be allowed to impose his or her beliefs in the conduct of state business lest the rights of others be impaired. Religious freedom for individuals requires that persons when representing the government conform to the Constitutional limits placed on government as if they are the government themselves.
I’ve addressed the matter of any individual thinking he or she has a right as a public employee to foist beliefs on others or to act as if the government has chosen one belief over another. This is not a rare event in America, but occurs in virtually every municipality, public school system, and other arena. Some of these issues are argued in my posts on this blog that I’ve noted below. With the foregoing thoughts in mind, however, let me shift my focus to the specific area of religious liberty that has so flooded legislatures’ agendas.
As an electorate, we’ve decided that certain behaviors in this “free country” are so unacceptable that they should be prohibited by law. Excluding black customers when operating a public business is not acceptable. Exposing minors to certain dangerous conditions is not acceptable. Cruelty to animals is not acceptable. Recently we’ve made excluding gay persons from services by public business is unacceptable. My point is this: Whether or not a specific one of us agrees with laws to enforce those specific behaviors, surely we agree laws should be applied without favor, equally on everyone. A law applies to persons who don’t like it as much as to persons who do.
Yet some Christian bakers refuse to serve gay customers wanting a wedding cake. (The Supreme Court is now engaged with such a case.) As already discussed, some public officials have chosen not to serve gays seeking a marriage license. There are more examples, but my point is that some Christians think that since they do not like the law, they should be excused from it. I understand that they’d not say it that way. They’d contend that it isn’t simply that they “don’t like” the law, but that their God doesn’t. Their God, of course, is not available to give testimony, so believers’ “sincere religious belief” about what their God wishes is frequently treated as enough.
There’s a problem, though, in that their belief is not the same as the equally conscientious belief of other Christians and non-Christians. Those who profess to speak for God disagree mightily among themselves. Is belief qua belief sufficient to establish an exception to public policy? Would the total of all “sincere beliefs” not potentially set aside much of public policy? In giving certain religious persons and proclivities more rights than either non-religious persons or differently religious persons, the civil government will not only have chosen among opposing religious views, but between a religion-based public morality and a secular one.
Christians are not being asked to surrender their beliefs, give up proselytizing, or stop worshipping in the way they choose. Those rights are firmly protected. They are being asked—no, make that required—to do something they don’t like in order to avoid stepping on rights we as a nation have decided that persons have. That they might call that an act of war on Christianity does not make it so. Are laws to be binding only when a person’s religious (oops; sincere religious) beliefs do not forbid it? Is the official message to be, “This what the law requires you to do unless you think you shouldn’t”? Have you ever considered all the civilizing efforts since the Enlightenment that would violate what one or another sincere religious belief forbids?
(Pardon my emphasis on that phrase. I’m not sure what sincere adds except a patina of solemnity and sagacity not granted other types of beliefs. Should hanging the modifier religious on an action or predisposition render it more sensible or less deserving of challenge? Ever heard of “sincere speed limit belief,” “sincere nutrition belief,” “sincere policing policy belief,” or even “freedom of sincere speech”? But I digress.)
Americans already have freedom of religion. Except for occasional fundamentalist Christians’ attempts to hamper Muslims’ (or others’) access to that freedom, it is a precious right valued by most Americans, including me. The present flurry of religious liberty bills makes a mockery of that freedom, for they propose to use religion to discriminate against women, LGBTQ people, and others. In some instances, they aim to divert public money to religious schools. There are even bills that would allow public school officials to pressure students to pray and to listen to religious preaching. Political leaders, some authentic, some not, appease and pacify fundamentalist Christian groups with promises of immunity from public policy others have to observe.
It is easy to overlook the fact that freedom of religion or, more broadly, freedom of conscience is a critical aspect of a free and benevolent society. Specifically religious values aren’t the only important ones we hold dear; in fact, historically they’ve often lagged behind secular ones. So it is that judicious balancing of our disagreements need not and should not rank religious sincerity over secular, nor religious notions of humaneness over secular.
Liberty of conscience—incorporating religious liberty—is so precious and so easily sacrificed that citizens and governments owe it vigilant protection. That obligation includes not damaging liberty with religious liberty laws.
Of more than 167 previous posts in this blog, “John Just Thinking,” these are particularly relevant to religious liberty: “Being civil about gay marriage,” June 30, 2013; “Perverting the meaning of freedom of religion,” Apr. 16, 2014; “America chose liberty this week,” June 27, 2015; “Sincere religious belief,” May 24, 2016; “The immorality of religion’s morality,” July 18, 2016; “So-called religious liberty bills,” Feb. 25, 2017; “Religion and gays as ‘the Others,’” May 9, 2017.