Indiana citizens continue to engage in arguments over RFRA, and I was recently asked to address our local Pride organization on the presumed conflict between religious liberty and civil rights. Below is an abbreviated version (still long–sorry) of my remarks.
A lot of anti-LGBT bigotry is justified as “religious liberty.” There was RFRA, of course, not just in Indiana but in several other states, and most recently, the Republican Platform endorsed both a national version of RFRA and passage of a so-called “First Amendment Defense Act,” which would allow any entity that receives public funding to discriminate against LGBTQ Americans on the basis of religion.
So this might be a good time to review the history and purpose of the religion clauses of the First Amendment– the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause—that together define this country’s approach to the subject of religious liberty.
What the phrase “Religious liberty” meant to the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock was the “liberty” to impose the correct religion on their neighbors. The idea that Church and State could even be separated would have been incomprehensible to the Puritans; the liberty they wanted was freedom to “establish” the True Religion, and to live under a government that would impose that religion on their neighbors.
The Puritans defined liberty as freedom to do the right thing, to impose the correct religion. The religious wars in Europe were all about which religion government should impose.
A hundred and fifty years later, however, the men who crafted a Constitution for a new nation were products of an intellectual paradigm shift that had produced a very different understanding of the nature of liberty. Between the time the Pilgrims landed and the time that George Washington took the oath of office, the philosophical movement we call the Enlightenment had given birth to science and empiricism, privileged reason over superstition, and caused philosophers like John Locke and others to reconsider the purpose and proper role of government.
After the Enlightenment, liberty—religious or otherwise—had come to mean a right to self-government, the right to decide for oneself what beliefs to embrace. Liberty now meant personal autonomy, and the right of individuals to live their lives in accordance with their own consciences, free of both state coercion and what the founders called “the passions of the majority.”
Although the new government got its legitimacy from majority rule, from the “consent of the governed,” the Bill of Rights limited what government could do even when a majority of citizens approved.
The problem we have in today’s America is that, although our Constitution and legal framework were products of the Enlightenment, the country is still home to a whole lot of Puritans. What we sometimes call the “culture wars” are part of an ongoing conflict between people holding very different visions of liberty.
The Mike Pence’s of the world aren’t just against equal rights for gays and lesbians, they aren’t just anti-abortion and anti-birth control. They are deeply Puritan: anti-science, anti-reason, anti-diversity. They are absolutely convinced of their own possession of the Truth, and like the original Puritans, absolutely convinced that a proper understanding of “religious liberty” should give them the right to make everyone else live by their particular Truth.
The fact that these irony-challenged theocrats are the same ones running around proposing legislation to prevent imposition of “Sharia law” would be funny if it weren’t so dangerous.
Under the Constitution as it actually exists, Americans have an absolute right to believe anything we want, but we don’t have an absolute right to act on those beliefs. (You can believe God wants you to sacrifice your first-born, but we don’t let you do that.) You only have to listen to some of the public debates about civil rights to understand that people have a lot of trouble understanding that distinction.
Let me give you an example.
When South Bend was considering adding sexual orientation to the City’s Human Rights ordinance, opponents objected that the religious exemption that had been included was inadequate because it only covered religious organizations and didn’t protect “religiously motivated” hiring and firing decisions.
The exemption for religious organizations is constitutionally required–if your religion disapproves of gay people, or unwed mothers, or atheists, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment forbids government from forcing your church to employ such people for jobs having theological dimensions.
For our friendly culture warriors, however, protecting the right of churches and religious organizations to follow the dictates of their faith–even when those dictates are inconsistent with civil rights laws–isn’t sufficient. According to their argument, if I can’t fire employees I discover are gay, if I can’t refuse to rent my apartment to LGBT folks, then the government is denying me religious liberty. (This is a variant of the argument that anti-bullying legislation infringes the “free speech rights” of the bullies.) The argument is apparently that I should be able to pick on gay people—or black people, or women, or Muslims–if I claim that my motivation is religious.
Obviously, an exemption for “religious motivation” would eviscerate civil rights laws.
The religion clauses of the First Amendment require that government be neutral between religions, and between religion and non-religion. To use a sports analogy, government is supposed to be an umpire, not a player. But there are people who simply cannot abide the notion of a neutral government, people who experience “live and let live” and civic equality as affronts to the primacy to which they feel entitled. In that peculiar worldview, a government that insists on fair play for gay people in the public sphere is a government that’s denying them religious liberty.
This is the same argument that erupted when Congress enacted the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Opponents argued that being forced to hire or do business with women or people of color violated their liberty to choose their associates. And they were correct; it did limit their liberty. In a civilized society, our right to do whatever we want is constrained in all sorts of ways; I don’t have the liberty to take your property, or play loud music next to your house at 2:00 a.m., or drive my car 100 miles per hour down a city street. And so on.
Here’s the deal: The guy who opens a bakery– or a shoe store or a bank or any other business– relies on an implied social contract. He expects the local police and fire departments to protect his store, he expects local government to maintain the streets and sidewalks that enable people to get there. He expects state and federal agencies to protect the country, to issue and back the currency used to pay for his product, to make sure that other businesses and institutions are playing by the rules and not engaging in predatory behaviors that would put him out of business. We the People of all races, religions, genders and sexualities pay the taxes that support those services, and in return, We the People expect retailers and others who are “open for business” to provide cakes or shoes or other goods to any member of the public willing to pay for them.
Opening for business implies a “come one, come all” invitation to the general public.
If you don’t approve of gay people, or African-Americans, or Muslims, or whoever—the Constitution says you don’t have to invite them over for dinner. You have the right to exclude “sinners” from your church, your private club and your living room.
Your hardware store, not so much.
We live in a society with a lot of other people, many of whom have political opinions, backgrounds, holy books, and perspectives that differ significantly from our own. The only way such a society can work–the only “social contract” that allows diverse Americans to coexist in reasonable harmony–is within a legal system and culture that respects those differences to the greatest extent possible. That means laws that require treating everyone equally within the public/civic sphere, while respecting the right of individuals to embrace different values and pursue different ends in their private lives.
When the government refuses to make everyone live by a particular interpretation of a particular holy book, that’s not an attack. It’s not a War on Christianity. It’s recognition that we live in a diverse society where other people have as extensive a right to respect and moral autonomy as the right we claim for ourselves.
Ironically, a legal system that refuses to take sides in America’s ongoing religious wars is the only system that can really safeguard anyone’s religious liberty. Genuine civic equality is only possible in a “live and let live” system—in an open and tolerant society.
If everyone doesn’t have rights, they aren’t rights—they’re privileges that government can bestow or withdraw. In such a society, no one’s rights are safe.
Here’s the “take away.” A better world is a world where different people with different beliefs, living different kinds of lives, can co-exist without privileging some at the expense of others, which is what the faux religious liberty bills do. That world won’t appear by accident. America has actually made a lot of progress; but right now, we are living through a very scary political moment, a moment that could easily reverse all the progress that’s been made.
We still have lots of work to do.