We’re all aware of the recent attempts by many across the country to use “religious freedom” as an argument for various actions. Whether it is denying service to certain people at retail establishments, or refusing to fill prescriptions for contraceptives at a pharmacy, or turning away couples wishing to get marriage licenses, the argument has been the same:
My religious beliefs do not support these actions by others, and by being forced to do so, my religious freedom is violated.
At first inspection, this argument seems to have merit. It sounds like government-imposed coercion, which has been at the heart of many religious freedom fights through the centuries. And as someone whose predecessors in the faith were punished and killed in the name of religious coercion, I can tell you that religious freedom is one of the Constitutional rights that I hold most dear.
But, even as I hold that right close, I feel that I must be completely clear when I say —
This use of the “religious freedom” argument is a flim-flam straw man that is deliberately disingenous and deceitful. It is a selfish power play, used to deny others their own rights. But it is also a DANGEROUS argument, that will ultimately come back to haunt those who use it.
More below the fold.
The point of religious freedom is the right to practice your religion without interference from the government, or to choose to practice no religion at all with no coercion from the government. The wording of the amendment is a marvel of balance and succinctness:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
Over the years, like much of the Constitution, we have had to work out the parameters of that statement within the context of the times. School prayer, city-sponsored creches, the wearing or not wearing of certain clothing — all have had to be weighed and discussed to find that balance of neither endorsing nor preventing.
In this case, though, the argument is not about one person’s practice of their faith. It is about that person’s understanding of right and wrong causing harm to another person.
An extreme example: suppose my church believed in the sacrifice of virgins? Would freedom of religion mean that my church could choose someone for the sacrifice, then proceed to kill them? Even more, would freedom of religion mean that my church could choose some random person outside the church and kill them?
Is this a silly example? Yes … and no. The example is outré; the principle is not. “MY religion allows me to prevent YOU from living a normal life or carrying out a normal activity that you are legally allowed to do.”
It’s all about Teh Gay — but as Rachel Maddow and others have repeatedly pointed out, this use of religious freedom can be used for a multitude of situations. The obvious example is inter-racial marriage, which was blocked on religious grounds for many decades. How about inter-religion marriage? How about serving food to Muslims? How about refusing to fill a prescription for depression medication, because my religion says that there is no such thing? You may say that these are silly examples, but a year ago I would have told you that there was no way anyone would allow county clerks to refuse service to ANYONE on the basis of the clerk’s religion … but North Carolina just passed such a law.
And now we come to why this is not only wrong, but dangerous. This use of the “religious freedom” argument is so blatantly illogical and prejudiced that it makes reasonable people just throw up their hands. As it spreads and is not called out by the so-called religious leaders across the country (and indeed is cheered on by some of them), it causes non-religious people to assume that religious people are not only incapable of serious thought, but are actually dangerous to society.
At some point, there will be a REAL threat to religious freedom … and no one will pay any attention, because we will have become the fools who cried “wolf” in order to perpetuate our own prejudices. And a key civil right, one of the key contributions of our country to democratic ideals, will be lost.
I am not a “religious leader.” I am just a person of faith, a writer, who sees this for the sham that it is, and who is willing to stand up and say so. May those with greater pulpits and readerships than I, also sound the alarm, and let everyone know that “freedom of religion” does not mean “freedom to hate.”