Religious Freedom

As the 2016 Presidential campaign gets underway, one of the initial issues, particularly for Republican candidates, appears to be “religious freedom.” The fact that this issue is becoming more and more politically volatile seems ironic, because it appears, from all the rhetoric, that everyone’s for religious freedom.

The problem is that an awful lot of socially conservative religious groups and their followers seem to believe that their religious freedom includes the freedom to restrict the rights of others and essentially force non-believers to conform to the standards of those conservative groups.

Drawing the line between one person’s free exercise of religious rights and others’ freedom of action is getting both trickier and more litigious, especially with regard to same-sex marriage. Some conservatives have opposed same-sex marriage on religious grounds, because their scriptures define marriage as between a man and a woman. Others believe that same sex marriage should be legally accepted, just as heterosexual marriages are, and it’s likely that the Supreme Court will rule on the issue this summer. But so long as the law does not require heterosexuals to enter into same sex marriage or mandate that clergy of a specific denomination perform same-sex marriages, how would the legality of a same-sex marriage infringe on the rights of believers who oppose such a marriage? The only thing it infringes on is their ability to dictate who others shoulder marry. There have also been several associated lawsuits dealing with the issue of whether providers of goods and services must provide such to same sex couples, especially, for some reason, wedding cakes.

In the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court held on a 5-4 decision that corporations privately held by a limited number of persons did not have to provide medical insurance coverage for contraceptives because that practice violated the religious beliefs of the corporate shareholders. I suspect that the decision will spur other “religious freedom” lawsuits because it sets a precedent, however limited, whereby plaintiffs can use the combination of economic power and religion to impose their beliefs on others – or at the very least, make them pay more to exercise beliefs at variance with those of their employers, or more than others employed elsewhere would pay.

Personally and practically, especially after having spent more than twenty years living in the semi-sovereign theocracy of Deseret, i.e., Utah, I am very leery of conservatives agitating for “religious freedom,” because that is almost always code for, “we intend to do our best to make you conform to our beliefs.” And in Deseret, the good old Mormon boys are very good at it, which might be why Utah has one of the greatest discrepancies between male and female wages in the entire United States, and why almost no state legislation can get passed without the tacit approval of the LDS General Authorities.

Voters should look closely at the “religious freedom” issue. I suspect what the conservatives have in mind isn’t going to make life easier for religious minorities, which is what religious freedom would seem to mean, but an attempt to impose “Christian” standards of some sort on everyone else… or at least to declare that the candidate would do so if the Supreme Court didn’t stand in his way… and by the way, all of those Presidential candidates hopping on the “religious freedom” bandwagon, at least so far, are men.

5 thoughts on “Religious Freedom”

  1. Thom says:

    Everyone fears that any time someone succeeds in making changes we disagree with that there will be no end to those changes now the momentum is established. No one wants to trust the other side when they say “This is as far as we want to go, and we won’t push any farther. Trust us.” And yet no one can ever seem to realize that the other side can have those very same concerns and may have just as valid a point. It always comes down to “my side are paragons of virtue and forebearance, while the other side are evil degenerates dead-set on destroying everything good and right.” And when things don’t go the way we want we have to find someone or some conspiracy to blame.

  2. Frank says:

    “Religious Freedom” is a great tag-line, similar to “motherhood and apple pie.” It sounds so comfortable, so inherently good, but it is only easy as a tag-line…which is why, I guess, it’s used so much in politics.

    I think it interesting that we single out religion to specifically call for it to be “free;” freedom of religion, freedom from religion, by, with, to, etc., etc., etc. We don’t call out “fashion” by touting we have “fashion freedom,” or “preference for salty-tasting food freedom,” or “hair color freedom,” and so on, ad nauseum.

    It is easy to see why Religious Freedom is such a star historically, but, if we really wanted to quell the fire, wouldn’t we just stop having “religious” be a legally recognized condition and/or term? If laws can define how we act towards one another, our obligations to society and each other, etc. Why can’t our “laws” and “leaders” just be deaf dumb and blind to the issue of religion?

    I realize that we have embedded religion with its own legal position, e.g. “recognized religions” (and that’s a whole other story) are tax exempt…which I think could be eliminated, and clergy have certain powers and rights that others don’t (clergy can perform marriages, confessionals are exempt from being compelled to brought forward as proof) etc. All these things could be done away with, from my view, without “damaging” religions as most (not all) could be done for their own sake, without legal sanction. But, I think it’s time for religious organizations to stop being exempted from responsibilities and consequences because they are, after all, made up of people, and, in some cases, lots and lots of money.

    I am a “SBNR” which, I’ve read, is one of the fastest growing demographics in the U.S. I don’t want anyone telling me what, who, and how to view God, and, I have no inclination to tell anyone else.

    Hasn’t enough blood been spilled, lives ruined, people persecuted over this? Can’t we just grow up and leave everyone else with their “weird” opinions as long as their actions don’t infringe upon us?

    I still “pledge allegiance to the flag…one nation, under God…” but I don’t think it’s right, it’s just not worth fighting about…again.

    1. R. Hamilton. says:

      Ask that question in Pennsylvania some time, where there are still those descended from a number of different groups that came here to practice their beliefs without government interference. When I have visited there, I had the impression there was actually considerable restraint commonplace, to avoid arguments and respect one another’s rights without compelling others to endorse the details. A Mennonite selling hangings commented about the lack of need to obsess over humanly unattainable perfection even while observing that attention to detail was entirely proper; but in response to my remark, simply noted that it was quite different from some Native American perspectives that purposely introduce design irregularities to avoid the pride of attempting perfection. I felt that I’d been gently encouraged to avoid making needless comparisons, nothing more. The avoidance of potential confrontation must be almost instinctive in some mixed communities.

      The history behind the First Amendment, including the part pertaining to religion, should not be lightly neglected, IMO. And despite Jefferson’s wall of separation, people aren’t required to leave their conscience behind in government service. The entire Constitution is about structuring and limiting the powers of government to minimize their potential for abuse, not, save for the ability of a President to respond quickly in crisis for a brief period, to maximize their effectiveness.

      There are plenty of non-religious non-profit (tax-exempt) organizations, too. IMO, the only issue for any of them might be if they provide services under government contract, or if they get involved in not just issues, but in partisan politics. Likewise, there are both religious and government authorities that will sign any marriage license (still issued by government, merely sometimes signed by some other authority) that the law allows – simply not EVERY religious authority will choose to do so. Does that undermine the government somehow? Why should the government inject itself into social policy save to correct those situations so abusive that alternatives effectively don’t exist?

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    Until the early 60’s, nobody even considered requiring private entities to provide equal service to ANY particular groups of persons – and that only because of egregious abuse, particularly in the South. Extending that principle to cover every possible permutation seems to me to be an infringement on the business owners’ property rights as well as on their right of (non-)assembly – to choose who they wish to associate with, and therefore who they do NOT wish to associate with.

    Those forms of contraception that MIGHT be construed as abortion (murder, in some people’s minds, unless it’s medically necessary self-defense), or, for that matter non-heterosexual marriages, may in the latter case be influenced by conditions of birth, but neither is itself such a condition, nor a privilege of conscience, but rather chosen conduct. The essence of law, and LEGITIMATE discrimination is to single out conduct.

    Why should a private business owner be required to provide anything other than essential goods and services (in support of survival, not of chosen conduct) that might enable conduct contrary to their conscience? I might add, that goes both ways: a gay hairdresser should be able to refuse to serve Anita Bryant.

    Public advocacy for or against all sorts of things is fine; boycotts are fine. But the practice of using businesses as instruments of social change, or for that matter complex tax laws as a means of altering legal behavior, is a never-ending growth of infringement on private liberty.

    For the record, I don’t care if there are civil unions that are legally identical to marriage except for the word. My objection is insistence on the word, which implies the intent to compel change resulting in universal acceptance – something that never works anyway, except among those who held no strong position one way or the other, let alone one where there are conscience-based arguments no less viable than any in favor of change. “Die Gedanken sind frei!”.

  4. D Archerd says:

    First, I would solve the whole issue of gay marriage by declaring that “marriage” is a religious sacrament which the government has absolutely no business in defining, so churches would be free to define it however they choose. The only arrangement that would be valid from the standpoint of property and childcare rights, benefits, etc. would be a domestic partnership contract. And a contract may be entered into by any consenting adults; no restrictions on number or gender, as long as all the parties were adult humans and willing (that ought to please the retrograde Mormons, too!).

    But the issue of “religious freedom” as applied to being compelled to provide service to people whom you don’t like or with whose behavior you don’t agree is not at all straightforward. Our entire society is built on the twin pillars of majority rule and minority rights (majorities don’t need their rights upheld because they rule, except where their ruling interferes with the rights of a minority). That’s why Jim Crow laws were struck down – even though they were passed by the majority in the states where they applied, they interfered with the rights of minorities. This is why laws against gay marriage will also be struck down sooner or later – at their heart they have the purpose of preventing one class of people from engaging in the full right of association that the rest of society enjoys, the right to marry who they choose.

    But the courts will have to see a clear and overriding societal benefit in order to restrict the rights of business owners to serve whom they choose. They did so in the civil rights decisions, ruling that failing to serve a person because of their color violated the civil rights of that minority, and a very similar argument could be made for upholding the civil rights of gays as well.

    The real issue comes down to whether you believe homosexuality is a choice or an inherent disposition based in genetics and environment. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests the latter, and indeed, most of the gay people I’ve talked to will tell you that they knew from a very early age that there was something profoundly different about them. But this is complicated by the fact that “homosexuality” is not a single condition, ranging from complete sexual identity and sole attraction to the same sex to someone basically heterosexual who may have had one homosexual encounter in their life or even simply has gay fantasies. Are both ends of that spectrum “gay”? If not, where do you draw the line? And because of that spectrum, people on one end of it have no more choice about their orientation than they do their skin color, while for people on the other end, homosexual behavior may indeed be a “behavioral choice”. The only real solution is for the individual themselves to identify their orientation. If someone tells you they’re gay, they’re gay. And if that same person is asking to be served in your business, are you any more justified in refusing them service than you would be if they were black or Jewish?

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