Demanding the Right to Discriminate

The Supreme Court heard arguments recently in a case out of California, in which a Christian student group at a public law school sued because they were denied recognition and funding by the school. The reason for this denial is that the school requires student groups to be open to all members, and the Christian Legal Society wants to ban – you’ll never see it coming – people who are guilty of “unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle”. That means gays and gays alone, of course, since being gay is the only sin that Christians care about now. The Bible also prohibits divorce quite clearly [Matthew 19:6], but I’ve heard no allegation that this group seeks to exclude people who are “unrepentantly guilty” of having gotten divorced.

Some of the arguments before the Supreme Court verged on the comic, such as this exchange:

“Are you suggesting that if a group wanted to exclude all black people, all women, all handicapped persons, whatever other form of discrimination a group wants to practice, that a school has to accept that group and recognize it, give it funds and otherwise lend it space?” asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

No, McConnell said. “The stipulation is that they may not exclude based on status or beliefs. We have only challenged the beliefs, not status. Race, any other status basis, Hastings is able to enforce.”

“What if the belief is that African Americans are inferior?” Justice John Paul Stevens said.

“Again, I think they can discriminate on the basis of belief, but not on the basis of status,” McConnell said.

So apparently, a student group would not be able to outright bar black people, but would be able to bar black people who refuse to sign a sworn statement declaring their belief in the racial inferiority of black people. Totally different! Thanks for clearing that up.

The Christian group’s lawsuit claimed that their constitutional rights of free association and free speech are being denied, which is an obvious falsehood. No one’s freedom of association is being denied; the Christian group, or any other group, can select its membership based on any criteria they like. The issue is whether the school, which as a public institution is an arm of the government, must subsidize that discrimination by giving official recognition and funding to such a group. This question should have been settled long ago, but while the CLS isn’t seeking to overturn civil-rights laws, it obviously wants to carve out an exception permitting them to practice anti-gay bigotry with state support as long as it’s founded on religious belief (as if racism of past eras was not also justified with religion).

Sadly, this revolting argument isn’t an American aberration. On the other side of the pond, Christian fundamentalists in the U.K. (yes, they do exist!) are making exactly the same argument:

A top judge was warned that court rulings against Christian workers risk causing “civil unrest” as he heard the case of a relationship counsellor who was sacked after refusing to give sex advice to homosexual couples. Gary McFarlane’s barrister said that laws banning discrimination had taken precedence over religious freedoms.

…Christian leaders are particularly concerned by a ruling by Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls on behalf of the Court of Appeal. Lillian Ladele, a registrar who refused to conduct civil partnerships because they were against her beliefs, was deemed to have broken the law and could no longer work as a registrar.

They claim that the ruling meant that the right to express the Christian faith must take second place to the rights of homosexuals.

That last sentence could be more accurately written as follows: “They claim that the ruling meant that the right of Christians to be bigots must take second place to the rights of homosexuals to be free of bigotry.”

After all this time, Christian fundamentalists are still committing the same fallacy I pointed out in one of my very first posts: the erroneous belief that their free exercise rights have been violated if they haven’t been accommodated in any way they demand. They’ve very successfully managed to remain ignorant of the fact that having freedom of religion means, if you have religious objections to performing the duties of a job, then you’re free to not take that job. There are plenty of positions where you’re not required to serve the public, if these people find the idea of rendering service to a gay person so utterly unthinkable.

But no. They seek the right not just to express their opinions as private citizens, but to carry those opinions over into the performance of their official duties and decide who they will or will not serve based on whom their religious beliefs tell them to hate. What next? Christian doctors who won’t treat gay people because they believe God is punishing them with plagues? Christian firefighters who refuse to extinguish a burning house if a gay couple lives there? Christian policemen who refuse to arrest a person who assaults or murders a gay man? Where does it stop?

What these loathsome fundamentalists really want is to make up their own laws based on their personal religious beliefs. And once we allow them to do that in even one area – once we accept that religious beliefs ever trump the equal protection of the law – there’s no consistent place where this principle should end. The only rational thing to do is to draw the line right at the beginning, and declare that bigotry and hate are never valid reasons for treating people unequally – the same argument that’s already accepted in the case of race and gender. There’s every reason to believe that the day is rapidly approaching when the Christians who seek to safeguard their own right to discriminate will be considered just as reprehensible as the bigots of past eras who fought equal rights for women and black people.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.