The Lie of “Religious Freedom”

Arizona’s legislature has passed a law that would in effect legalize discrimination against gay people. Full disclosure: I’m gay and married, but on the other hand I have no particular wish to visit Arizona anytime soon, so maybe it balances out. Anyway, the people promoting this law claim that it is actually a law for tolerance, that when people want to discriminate against gay people, that is part of their religious freedom.

This is bullshit.

I am in an airport lounge watching a silent TV on which Anderson Cooper is posing the question: “License to discriminate or religious freedom?” and an Arizona legislator is quoted as saying, “I’m against all discrimination and I want maximum religious freedom.”

So okay, where is the lie in all this? It’s in the phrase “religious freedom.” The First Amendment to the constitution says that Congress shall not make “any law respecting an establishment of religion [or] impeding the free exercise of religion…” and this is where people are going when they talk about religious freedom.

But the problem is that serving gays and lesbians is not proscribed by any church that I know of. Refusing service to people is not an exercise of religion. Exercising religion means that Muslims must be allowed to pray five times a day, that Jewish people cannot be forced to work on the Sabbath, that Christians cannot be barred from saying Grace before meals (most of the Christians I know who do this do it silently to themselves anyway). The Church’s official position on gays and lesbians varies from “come on in, daughters and sons” to “get out of our church,” but in no case is a practicing Christian required by their faith to refuse service to someone who is not a member of their church–the sole exception being an actual official of the Church, who cannot be required to perform a marriage ceremony within the Church for people he does not believe can receive the sacrament of marriage. But churches are already protected BY THE FIRST AMENDMENT from having to perform marriages for gay people. So the only people this law will affect is bigoted service industry owners who want to blame their bigotry on their religion.

Guess what? Your church might be bigoted, but bigotry is not part of the practice of your faith. And it’s not part of your religious freedom. So until someone starts the Church of Assholes, shut up and try to actually behave like a human being to other people–which, guess what, IS part of the practice of the Christian faith.

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5 Responses to The Lie of “Religious Freedom”

  1. pj wolf says:

    Well said.

  2. Deyna says:

    Could not agree more! If you’d like to see that whole clip with sound it’s here:

    The amount of dishonesty/ignorance/delusion (not sure which) is insane but it sure is fun to watch him squirm.
    Unfortunately, I live in Mississippi and it’s also not against the law here to discriminate. On the other hand, two towns have passed resolutions to not do so with the first being the town in which I’m currently attending college. Small victories!

  3. Mut says:

    What you say is reasonable, but I think it’s the wrong argument, for two related reasons.

    One is that telling people that you know their religion better than they do will just make them bristle and stop listening. (Even if it’s true. Or maybe: especially if it’s true. Cognitive dissonance.) So it makes for a nice rant, but it won’t change any minds.

    The second is that religion is surely more than the literal text of the scripture, but also the interpretation and the practice. (Otherwise, the Reformation would’ve been a lot less interesting.) In concrete terms, if Pastor Bob has been telling them for the last decade that they have a moral duty to shun gays and then you come along and tell them that religion has nothing to say about the issue — well, it won’t pass the smell test.

    IMO, a much safer way to come at it is to start from: suppose your religion told you to refuse service to Jewish people, or African-Americans, or blondes. Could you do that? Well, no, obviously. Why not? Because while religious freedom guarantees you the right to hold and practice your beliefs in the private sphere, the religious freedom (and other rights) of others means you have to be respectful in the public sphere. You don’t have to invite them home for dinner. You don’t have to like them — and they don’t have to like you. But the public sphere has to be neutral ground where everyone is treated fairly — not just out of some wishy-washy ideal, but so that they can continue to hold conflicting religious views in private without open conflict.

    • Administrator says:

      Thanks for a really good reply! I think you bring up a lot of good points, and certainly if I were ever to be invited to an actual debate on this topic I would want you there to represent this point of view. I’m only going to take issue with your statement that it’s the wrong argument, and then only partially. You’re right about that, but you’re right because there is no right argument. While your proposal is very well reasoned and stands on firm pillars of civic duty and societal obligations and so on, it is also the wrong argument because the people pushing this law are not interested in what makes for a reasonable society. They are not interested in compromise, in what we need to do to all get along. They are interested in maintaining their illusory world in which one man marries one woman until death do they part (leaving aside all the divorce and adultery and so on) and God and Jesus watch over America and keep her safe (one extremist actually argued that by “freedom to exercise religion,” the Founders MEANT “freedom to exercise Christian religion”), and they are no more interested in making society comfortable for everyone than they are in turning toward Mecca and praying. If you come at them with “you can’t discriminate against Jewish people or African-Americans or blondes,” then you’ve changed the conversation to be about whether gay people form a legitimate subgroup or subculture–which these people already do not believe. You’re likely to get a response like “well, it makes me uncomfortable when they behave gay in public, so why can’t they just act normal if everyone is supposed to make society comfortable for everyone else?”

      The other thing is that I’m not saying religion has nothing to do with it. I’m saying that the exercise of religion has nothing to do with it, and the importance of that point is that by allowing the use of the phrase “religious freedom” in this context, it dilutes the importance of it. The exercise of religion is an important and personal right, and I believe it is not generally held to include anything that has an effect on other people. For example: proselytizing from door to door is an important part of a couple religious cultures–and yet it is legal to say “you can’t do that in this area.” It’s not part of the act of worship; it’s a duty that goes along with being a member of the community, and while it has its basis in the religion, I don’t think anyone would dream that they could win a lawsuit saying that they have a religious freedom right to knock on your door during dinner and ask if you’d like to join their Church. The “moral duty to shun gays” falls into that category, and labeling it a “religious freedom” is disingenuous (intentionally) and distorting, and what it means is not just mislabeling the importance of this case, but also setting up people down the road to say “well, we were denied the religious freedom to discriminate, therefore we can take away the religious freedom to wear a turban” even though the wearing of a turban is a component of worship for some Sikh men (and also it doesn’t impose on anyone else’s life, which I think should be the real definition of whether a religious freedom is covered by the Constitution).

      I’m very big on proper use of language, so that’s why I want to say, “No, you can’t use this term for that.” Also this rant was written in about fifteen minutes and I will concede that probably that’s about how much critical thought went into it. :) But the foundation, the whole misuse of language and the distinction between the exercise of religion and religion-based community actions, those are important to me and I think they should be discussed.

  4. Karmakat says:

    sincerely, all puns not implied, all i can find to say to that is “Amen to that”

    sincerely i see the crap here in france. most churchs, BARELY used or not, will pretend they are “to busy” fo ra wedding or go “BAH you will divorce anyway when you find another pair of pants you like.”

    i been going through, i don’t know how much, many church for my best friend that would like to marry his mate that he is with since 7 years. and own a house together , that they GOT BUILT for them since 4.
    And now because of that they are having doubts and taking some “time appart”

    isn’t religion supposed to give you faith and support? NOT PAIN AND DAGGERS?

    at this point this is just a joke. i grew up with faith and every sunday at church out of the teaching of my grandma. and in all those years i ALWAYS FAILED to see a part implying “you shall destroy the heart of your next one” or even “adam and adam2 should not feel love or be damned.”

    yes i a m passing the easy pun “adam and steve” with this.

    i grew up and worked in a place of lots of religions, it left me open minded and not disrespecting any of them, quite the opposte actually.

    but to see someone that made a vow treat people like that… just twists my heart sincerely