A Humanist View
The Religious Right Plays the Victim
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said, "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins." Former Supreme Court Justice Holmes had some curious ideas, but this one was on the mark—as was his disregard for ancient texts and divine revelation—for it is basic to our understanding of justice that we don't have a right to harm others. You can get arrested if you do. Nor do we have a right to limit others' freedom. That's why it's also illegal to keep people in place against their will, or deny people employment based on their ethnicity, gender, and other irrelevant factors. When we're trying to convince people of our position, we can't force them to concur, we can only try and make a persuasive argument. Everyone knows this, right?
Not everyone. The Religious Right regularly tries to force others to comply with their own limited concepts of morality. We've seen these groups railing against contraceptive coverage provisions for employers and opposing same-sex marriage and gender equality, all the while trying to claim that their religious liberty is being limited. It takes tortured logic to see it from their perspective, but the Christian right has played the victim card in their attempts to impose their views on the rest of us. While the Religious Right cries foul, who is really hurt by their sectarian policies?
That question can be asked of conservative religious groups over their involvement in the contraceptive care controversy. These groups got involved after a Department of Health and Human Safety rule was issued that required all employers, except for religious organizations, to cover contraceptive coverage for their employees. Initially, businesses that were affiliated with religious organizations, but not religious organizations themselves, were also required to provide contraceptive. However, after significant opposition from religious groups, the Obama Administration compromised and mandated that insurance companies themselves would have to provide contraceptive care to employees of businesses that are affiliated with religious organizations. While it's nice to know that these employees will get the vital health services that they need, it is a bit upsetting that their employers get a free ride on actually paying for it (and that you and I will be subsidizing the expenses of religiously-affiliated businesses). What is even more upsetting is that religious organizations are still protesting this coverage requirement, even though they themselves were never required to provide it and the businesses that are associated with them are off the hook as well.
Another example is the recent flare-up over hiring and employment discrimination. This issue returned to prominence after the Obama administration wrongly decided not to issue an executive order to include gender identity and sexual orientation among the prohibited forms of discrimination in the employment practices of U.S. government contractors. This executive order would have done part of the work of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), and just like ENDA, this executive order would not have applied to religious organizations that served as government contractors. Whether or not such an exemption should exist in a secular democracy is up for debate, but religious organizations would have been totally unaffected by proposed executive order or the passage of ENDA. So why did the Religious Right work so hard to oppose these efforts?
But perhaps the most upsetting is the faith-based opposition to same-sex marriage. Even though the LGBT community has gone through pains to state that they only want to get married in churches that voluntarily choose to officiate such weddings, conservative religious groups still lobby against legalizing same-sex marriage. Why do they continue to do so even though they wouldn't be forced to perform same-sex marriage services if they don't want to? Their opposition appears to be against gay and lesbian marriages happening anywhere by anyone, but this violates Holmes' principle that we don't have the right to hurt others or limit their freedoms.
Our very concept of morality is at the heart of this issue. While nontheists and progressive people of faith understand that morality is internal, we decide ourselves to do good, and we decide ourselves not to do bad, without the need for government or other higher powers to compel us to behave. Fundamentalists somehow feel they need government and God to keep a close watch on them to prevent them from going astray. If only everyone realized that you can be good without a god, and focused on developing empathy for others who we understand to be equal in worth to ourselves, and approached issues with compassion and reason, then we could finally come to an understanding and let people live as they see fit without harming others.
Hopefully a time will come where people can believe what they want to believe without telling others what they should believe or how they must behave. Until then, religious organizations need to be reminded occasionally that they are not the only ones deserving of protection and respect.
Roy Speckhardt is the Executive Director of the American Humanist Association. He is also a board member of the organization providing Humanists leadership training, the Humanist Institute, and an advisory board member of Secular Student Alliance. Follow him at http://twitter.com/americnhumanist.