News recently (like, the past two decades or so) has alluded frequently to the importance of religious freedom, usually in the context of someone using their religion to deny the rights of other people. The editorial writers are all over the lot on what they think about the individual cases, but they all agree on one thing: religious freedom is important, and must be protected at all costs. The problem is, people do not agree on the meaning of religious freedom.
Does religious freedom mean the freedom to decide what kind of Christian you will be? Some people believe this – that religious freedom applies only to Christians. Others are somewhat magnanimous, extending that freedom to all the religious. Then there are actually those who think, gasp, that religious freedom extends to everyone, including the non-religious, and includes the freedom not to believe. (By the way, this is what the authors of the First Amendment believed, but you won’t find that in Scalia’s “original intent”).
Laws have been passed in recent years to “defend religious freedom”. Still others have been proposed in legislatures, but are either still pending or died with very little notice. More will be proposed in the next legislative sessions, from the smallest governing bodies to the largest. In some cases, non-binding resolutions will be proposed, passed, and reported on, to allow grandstanding representatives of the people to proclaim that they represent the “right” people – those who happen to fall within the parameters of the resolution they just passed, usually Christians of one stripe or another.
In recent court cases and legislative actions, religious freedom has been broadened to the extent that religious people are now allowed to opt out of certain laws they “sincerely believe” conflict with their religious beliefs, and this broadening is poised to get still broader, until we might reach a point where you can avoid any law you don’t like simply by fitting the argument into your “sincerely held” religious beliefs (I put that in quotes, because “sincere” is a judgment call, and how the hell does the court actually decide that Mr. A is “sincere” in his religious hatred of gays, but Mr. B is not “sincere” in his religious hatred of people who hate gays?). So it might be okay to murder Grandma if it is part of your religious tradition, or a sacrifice required by your particular belief system.
Here is my take on the issue: there should be no religious freedom that allows you to be exempt from the laws of the land. Period. If the law is such that it is safe or reasonable to suspend it for the religious, then that law may not be needed at all, and it could be one that none of us should follow. If the law is important and protective of society, then the religious should be required to follow it whether they like the law or not. There is simply nothing in the Constitution that suggests religious people should be given preference in deciding which laws they wish to follow.
Here’s an example: If a religious baker is allowed to violate the laws against non-discrimination and not service a same-sex wedding, then what is to prevent an atheist baker from saying that they won’t service a religious wedding? Or a Catholic from refusing to bake for a Protestant wedding – or vice versa? What about Jewish bakers? Should they feel obligated to bake cakes for Christian weddings? As you can see, there is no end to the manifestations.
And in case you are sitting there going, okay, I see all this – except the atheist, who has no sincere religious beliefs at all. I will agree that their beliefs are not what we call religious, but they are sincere philosophical worldviews that are protected by the First Amendment as religious freedom – the freedom not to believe, without which there is no religious freedom at all. By truncating one particular belief system, you truncate all of them, because religious belief no longer becomes a free choice.
So I propose that we stop all this madness, and simply implement this rule: if Congress passes a law, you follow it. If the law violates your religious beliefs, ask Congress to review it. Work with your friends to get it overturned for everyone. Do not ask the courts for special privileges others do not have, because then it isn’t religious freedom, it is religious favoritism. If it turns out that the law is important (say, don’t murder Grandma), then it is important for everyone, not just for some.
Until then, my suggestion is this: anyone who is not a fundamentalist Christian who refuses to serve gays should claim a religious exemption from serving fundamentalist Christians who refuse to serve gays. The court flung that door open – walk through it. And yes, I know the decision was a narrow one, only applying to this case because the person making the earlier decision “disparaged the religious views” of the baker. So the hell what? That, my friend, is covered under the freedom of speech. And if they did that in their context of government employee, the proper answer is to reprimand and discipline the employee, not to give the baker free rein to discriminate. After all, government employees disparage religious beliefs every time they declare this to be a Christian nation, or state that prayer is important, or faith is important, or implore us all to offer up “thoughts and prayers”. They disparage the beliefs of anyone who has a religious worldview that says otherwise.
I know. Let’s just turn our government to the business of managing the secular business of the state, and leave the question of religious duties to other people. And religious people may discriminate in their homes and places of worship, but they still must follow all the laws of the country that are reasonable and necessary. If it turns out that religious people don’t need to follow them, they probably aren’t reasonable and necessary. So religious doctors need to discuss reproductive choices. Religious pharmacists need to dispense properly prescribed medications. Religious teachers need to teach the curriculum, not the Bible. And religious bakers need to bake cakes. Once their home, they do like the rest of us – take off their shoes, put up their feet, and pour themselves a tall glass of whatever drink they prefer…and let out a primal scream at the unfairness of the universe.