Can we talk about Americans’ widespread confusion over religious liberty?
Georgia lawmakers recently approved a bill that says church officials can refuse to perform gay marriages. (Evidently, supporters of the so-called “Pastor Protection Act” do know that religious leaders already have that protection under the First Amendment, but they argue that passage of the measure will “reassure them.”)
The “Pastor Protection Act” was one of at least eight other bills pending in the Georgia legislature sponsored by opponents of same-sex marriages. They included Georgia’s very own RFRA, which is headed for passage over the vocal objections of state business leaders. Georgia’s RFRA already prompted 373k, a Decatur-based telecom startup, to announce it would relocate to Nevada; yesterday, it generated an editorial about state-level RFRAs in the New York Times:
These brazen measures, going beyond the Indiana law, would create blanket protection for discrimination. That these states would consider such legislation is all the more remarkable given the damage Indiana’s image and economy suffered in the national backlash to its law.
One of the most alarming bills comes out of Georgia, where state lawmakers have cobbled together a dangerous piece of legislation that would prohibit the government from punishing anyone or anything — individuals; businesses; and nonprofit groups, including those that receive taxpayer funds — for discrimination, so long as they claim it was based on their religious views of marriage.
We’ve seen this movie before.
Decades of foot-dragging in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education was nothing short of scandalous; resistance to the 1964 Civil Rights Act continues to this day, and now, in the.wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, states like Georgia, West Virginia and Indiana—among others—are engaging in the same sorts of behaviors that followed those previous extensions of equal rights.
In fact, what we are seeing from “religious” folks today is strikingly similar to “religious” arguments against civil rights protections for African-Americans in 1964. Then, the argument was “my religion teaches that the races are to be kept separate, so requiring my bakery or shoe store to serve black customers would deny me religious freedom.”
So what is the First Amendment right to religious freedom? How extensive is it? What does it protect?
As I tell my students, religious freedom means you have the absolute right to believe anything you want. Jesus, Zeus, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or nothing at all—it’s entirely up to you. And your church or synagogue or coven can preach about those beliefs, reject participation in events offensive to those beliefs, and even hire and fire certain employees based upon religious doctrine.
When it comes to acting on the basis of your beliefs, however, the law erects some limits. You can sincerely, deeply believe that you should sacrifice your first-born, or that prayer, not medical intervention, will cure your child’s serious disease, but you are not allowed to act on those beliefs. (You can refuse medical care for yourself, but not for your minor child.) You can believe that your God wants you to rob that bank, or use drugs, or copulate in the middle of the street, but no matter how sincere your belief, government isn’t going to go along.
Except in very rare cases, religious belief does not exempt individuals from what the courts call “laws of general application.”
Here’s the deal: when you open a business, government provides the streets and sidewalks your customers use to access that business. Police and fire departments protect it from harm. When your toilets flush, government sewers remove the excrement. In many areas, government picks up your trash and provides public transportation for your customers and employees. In return for these and other services, government expects you to do two things: pay your taxes and obey the laws.
Including civil rights laws. Even if you live in Georgia, or Indiana.