On February 26, 2014 Arizona governor Jan Brewer vetoed a “Religious Freedom” bill that had sailed through the Arizona congress. It has been called the “Turn Away the Gays” law that hypothetically would have allowed businesses to deny commercial services to gay men and women without fear of civil lawsuits if the business owner had a sincere religious belief that being gay was a sin. The impetus for this bill is at least two cases where Christian business owners denied services to gay customers – a bakery in Oregon refusing to do a wedding cake for a gay couple, and a photographer in New Mexico who refused to photograph a gay wedding. The failure of this bill to pass into law has been hailed as a victory for gay rights, and the country celebrated Jan Brewer for making the right decision.
Well, I’m a bit more Big Picture and cynical than that.
The precedent cases were based on Oregon and New Mexico state laws. The offending business owners were sued for violating those state laws. In Arizona there are no such laws. It is perfectly legal to deny gay men and women equal access to public services in Arizona. Under state law, homosexuals and transgendered are not a protected minority. A baker in Arizona can refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple with no fear of legal reprisal, and the reason doesn’t even have to be religious. So put it out of your head that Arizona somehow came into the 21st century regarding equality and civil rights.
The bigger problem, the problem that is shitting on the heads of Georgians, is this whole idea of religious freedom needing some sort of legal protection in the US. In Georgia, two bills have been introduced – one in the senate and one in the house – that address the non-issue of “preservation of religious freedom”. Senator Josh McKoon – primary sponsor of the state senate bill – cited his examples of the alleged threat to religious freedom in an address on the state senate floor on February 26.
From Obamacare’s mandate to require religious institutions to provide abortion services to the fact we had to bring forward legislation so school children and those employed in our public schools to be allowed to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” evidence abounds that the last group of people in America it is ok to pick on are people of faith.
McKoon distorted the facts, and I’m being generous, in his cited examples of specific alleged religious discrimination.
- The Texas pastor dispute was a city zoning issue, not a religious freedom issue – although the pastor did use the Texas Religious Freedom law as the basis for the zoning variance, and he won.
- The Florida college professor (a Christian man) did not demand students stomp on the word “Jesus”. He was teaching a lesson about the value of words and symbols. The student was suspended not for not participating, but for threatening the professor.
- The Nevada pastor claimed he was denied access to a parishioner – an illegal alien who had been detained. The pastor claimed his, not the prisoner’s, religious freedom was impeded.
- As for the Georgia case – my Google Fu failed me on this one. I have no idea to whom McKoon is referring
The above cases had little to do with religious freedom and more to do with religious privilege, and that certainly is not as strong in the US as it once was. Everyone of the cited cases was from religious people wanting an exemption just because their particular religious sensibilities were hurt. They were looking for outcome based on the fact that as religious people – specifically Christians – they should be afforded exemptions to the rules the rest of the people had to follow. Christian privilege is indeed on a decline, but that is not the same as religious freedom being denied.
While this country was not founded on religious freedom (read your history books – we were founded by hunters, traders, trappers, merchants, and scoundrels), religious freedom is certainly an integral part of our framework, and in spite of the Fox News types wringing their hands, religious freedom is still strong here. But, as George H. W. Bush didn’t say, “There ought to be a limit to freedom.” Religious freedom is not absolute in the US. From modern issues regarding marriage equality to such older issues as polygamy, animal sacrifice, religious tests for public service, the use of hallucinogenics in worship – religious freedom has always been tempered by the law.
But let’s play the Game Of the Absurd.
According to the Pew Forum (2007), the US is 78.% Christian, 4.7% “other”, and 16.1% none.
Of the Christians, there are 51% protestant (26.3% evangelical, 18.1% “mainline”, and 6.9% historically black), 23% Catholic, 1.7% Mormon, and 1.5% miscellaneous Christian denominations.
Among the Others there 1.7% Jewish, .7% Buddhists, .6% Muslim, .4% Hindu.
That’s a lot of differing religious viewpoints. Even among the majority protestants there are huge variations. I know that the Episcopal church (part of the 18.1% mainline) has congregations that strongly support marriage equality, and congregations that are vehemently opposed to it. Among Baptists, the 26.3% evangelical, there are variations of stances on civil rights. Catholics are torn on the issues choice and immigration. At what point do we say that special accommodations for religious freedom are trumped by the greater social good?
There are devout Christians who have strong and sincere religious beliefs that blacks are inferior to whites – even cursed by God. Should those Christian business owners be allowed to deny commercial goods and services to blacks?
There are Muslims who think it is okay for 10 year old girls to be married off to 50 year old men. Should those Muslims be afforded special exemptions from consent laws?
What about the liberal Christians and Jews who believe in marriage equality? Should marriages between same gender couples be granted an special dispensation in Georgia because their church believes it is okay (fwiw – the two bills in front of the Georgia legislative bodies specifically exclude marriage equality – so the answer to this question is “no, not with the current bill”)?
Making exceptions in civil law for religious preference alone is fraught with potential problems, quandaries, and proverbial slippery slope. We are all obligated as citizens to abide by one set of laws that should apply to everyone equally. We’ve had a hard enough problem with that part already. Are we really willing to make it even more difficult?0