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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    On the other side of the pond, Christian fundamentalists in the U.K. (yes, they do exist!) are making exactly the same argument:

    Disturbingly the Archbishop of Canterbury wants to bias the courts in favour of this argument by suggesting only judges “with a proven understanding of religious issues” should be allowed to rule on these kinds of cases.
    Of course he fails to realise that all the judge needs to understand is the law. Regardless of which bits of obscure Christian doctorine lead people to deny services to same sex couples, it is still discriminatory.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    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

    Just as patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, so is religion the last refuge of bigots.

  • Alex, FCD

    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.

    I’m not a lawyer, but isn’t it usually considered unwise to include threats in your argument?

  • AnonaMiss

    I’m a little confused. Was the relationship counsellor in the UK receiving public funds? If not, it strikes me as his right to refuse service for whatever reasons he pleased. (Of course it would also be his employer’s right to fire him for not doing the job they were paying him for.)

  • L.Long

    They have every right to refuse to serve or associate with based on their personal bigotry. All they have to do is form an enclave like the amish do and there hidden from view they can beat their wives and kids into submission, and have free exercise of their bigotry.
    All they need is to buy up a large tract of land (mid-Nevada sound good), fence it off and declare it private and have lots of guns to scare off …… Oh ya someone’s already tried that. How did it work out for them?

  • Stephen P

    They’ve very successfully managed to remain ignorant of the fact that having freedom of religion means …

    I think that much of the problem is that while the laws of numerous countries protect the freedom of religion, few (if any?) define what having freedom of religion actually does mean. Or even define what religion is. If any country does clearly define freedom of religion in its laws, I’d be interested to know.

  • Ritchie

    AnonaMiss

    Was the relationship counsellor in the UK receiving public funds? If not, it strikes me as his right to refuse service for whatever reasons he pleased.

    Surely not? To do so would be discrimination. Surely it’s against the law to refuse service to anyone based on race, gender, sexuality, etc.?

    Another case hit the UK headlines in the last two weeks (ish) of a woman who ran a B&B and turned away a gay couple (I’m sure it’ll shock no-one here to hear she cited her religious principles as reason for doing this). She thought she had the right to turn away anyone she wished since it was her house. But as she had opened up her house as a B&B, she effectively turned it into a business, and it was against the law for her to turn away paying customers just because of her own prejudices. I assume the same applies with the relationship counsellor.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    The councillor worked for Relate which is a charity.

  • Zietlos

    Ritchie: You’re not allowed to turn away paying customers in a business due to prejudices?

    I actually did not know that. I see many times of EXCEPTIONS made for prejudices (such as allowing animals in open food stores if it is a seeing eye dog, assuming a disabled person is not as able as a fully functional one), but I haven’t ever seen disallowances made for prejudices. As long as a place’s criteria is outlined clearly before doing business (no shoes, no shirt, no service, etc) they are allowed to put whatever they want there, though they may get bad publicity for it. The no shoes one, for example, is obvious discrimination against the disabled with no feet, technically, they could be refused service for not wearing shoes, but an exception is made for the rule, though it does not need to be.

    If the B&B had a rule “only allow intergender married people within half a standard deviation of average height and weight that have a colour-distance-function of 127 or less from white who have one blue eye and one green eye”, technically it should be allowed, I think. It should be visibly published, so as to not solicit non-customers (such as blatant age discrimination on beer and smokes), but the core of it should be fine.

    Of course, if such rules are not made except spur of the moment, then it is different, but stores are private establishments. Even as a customer, you can be forced to leave under threat of being considered an unlawful invader for no reason whatsoever (such as asking an “unruly” diner to leave a restaurant or a notorious shoplifter from a hardware store, even if he hasn’t stolen something today yet), so giving a reason shouldn’t make a difference, it’s a god of the gaps: MORE information than before was given, so now its wrong instead of right?

    However, from the article proper, it is not a private establishment but a public one, and in that case the above no longer stands, as public ones rely upon gov’t spending, and thus are “from the people, for the people”, and must follow a freedom from/of religion mandate. How did the court case turn out, or is it still in progress?

  • http://livesofplants.blogspot.com/ Alex, FCD

    You’re not allowed to turn away paying customers in a business due to prejudices?

    Nope. It’s definitely illegal most places to turn away customers on the basis of race, ancestry, place of origin, &c. Your more enlightened country will add things like sexual orientation to that list. You can usually refuse service for any other reason, though.

  • dbhoward

    It sounds as if the justices are not buying the student group’s arguments, which is good. This seems so open-and-shut from the point of settled law and precedent. They’re using University resources, so they can’t claim the privileges of a private group or club. Where do they even think they have a case?

    You’re right though, of course, @Ebonmuse; they feel entitled to receive society’s benefits (i.e. Medicare, police protection, forming University student associations) without accepting any of society’s restrictions (i.e. paying taxes, obeying the law, allowing equal access for all). I’m seeing this more and more from my conservative friends, who just don’t get that there are two sides to the citizenship equation.

  • Ross

    Disturbingly the Archbishop of Canterbury wants to bias the courts in favour of this argument by suggesting only judges “with a proven understanding of religious issues” should be allowed to rule on these kinds of cases.

    I feel I should point out that Lord Carey is actually the previous Archbishop of Canterbury. The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has actually denied that Christians are persecuted in the UK. That’s not to say that there aren’t any fundamentalists in the hierarchy of the Church of England, just that Rowan Williams doesn’t seem to be one of them.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Lord Carey is actually the previous Archbishop of Canterbury. Well caught sir :) indeed he is, I got it right when I wrote about it on my own blog a few days ago.
    Thing is of course he is not Lord Carey for nothing. It is easy to forget that although Britain is socially quite secular, the Church of England is an established Church and is represented in Government at the highest levels.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    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.

    Not to quibble too much, but unless this group is denying divorced students membership, this looks like a gratuitous slap.

    Your point, obviously, stands in regards to subsidized adult orgs such as the BSA.

  • Ross

    Thing is of course he is not Lord Carey for nothing.

    Yes, the existence of the Bishop’s Bench in 21st century Britain is really quite embarrassing. I fear that, even with all the talk of electoral reform, there seems to be little political will among the major parties to do anything about it (or about the Queen, either).

  • Ritchie

    zietlos:

    How did the court case turn out, or is it still in progress?

    Last I heard (21st March) the Thames Valley police had logged it as a homophobic incident and are ‘following it up’.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/8578787.stm

    Though, as a side point, Conservative MP Chris Grayling publically defended the B&B owner, saying she should have the right to turn away whomever she wished – an embarrassing faux pas with a general election looming. This, and the fact that the party leader was so slow and silent on bringing him into line, sparked a gay flash mob in response – gay couples turning up outside the Conservative party HQ for a big kissing protest. The event was hardly touched by the mainstream media.

    http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2010/04/449057.html

    Chris Grayling did eventually apologise – and since it was a hot day, the Conservatives provided free ice-cream for the protesters. :)

    Now, just how cheaply bought IS my vote? It was very nice ice-cream…

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    @Ritchie: I like that nice Mr Clegg, he’s an atheist.

  • Ritchie

    Oooh, is he? Never knew that. I like him more now. Even though I work for the Machiavelian Murdoch empire and the higher-ups have taken to wearing brown trousers since it became so doubtful that the Tories were on Easy Street to No 10, so my job is to basically libel Mr Clegg as much as I think I can get away with without actually getting us taken to court.

    I think the only job which could possibly generate more self loathing in me would be Fred Phelp’s personal wiper!

    Still, it’s Green for me on polling day. Not a hope in Hell, obviously, but a surge in popularity might make the major parties sort their environment policies out a bit.

  • http://livesofplants.blogspot.com/ Alex, FCD

    Chris Grayling did eventually apologise – and since it was a hot day, the Conservatives provided free ice-cream for the protesters. :)

    My goodness you guys have tame conservatives.

  • Ritchie

    Alex –

    Yeah, I guess we do. Though with an election less than a month away I suppose we can expect higher-than-usual levels of sucking-up from politicians.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Alex,FCD
    No! you’re right, most U.S Democrates would feel very comfortable in the U.K Conservative party. Most of the British ultra right wing(nuts) have decamped to minority parties like UKIP or the BNP. In general U.K politics is pretty central/left wing as anything else tends to attract derision from the general public. Which is not to say that that some hot button issues like immigration, or the EU won’t influence some to vote for extreme candidates.

  • http://livesofplants.blogspot.com/ Alex, FCD

    Steve,

    The situation is similar in Canada (where I live). The Liberal and Conservative parties are both fairly centrist. A former Liberal PM described his party’s position as “the radical middle”, and we once had a Tory PM who wanted legal pot and a guaranteed minimum income. And we do have our share of parties on the whack-a-loon fringe.

    Still, I’ve never heard of our Tories handing out free ice-cream.

  • Zietlos

    No Alex, but some of our other prime ministers got free(-flying) pies. :) Ahh Chretien, I miss your antics. Sure, your wife beat up assassins and you strangle protesters, but at least the news gave giggles, not groans. :) Most guys would just taser the protesters, or get the RCMP to move them, but not old Chretien, he was a “hands on” politician. :p

    Our current PM is a bit more right-wing than I’m personally comfortable with, what with putting a Young-Earther in charge of the Sciences, but compared to other places, I guess he is still a bit more left than our Southern neighbors’ bible-thumpers.

  • Maynard

    I think this article falls neatly on topic.
    Conservatives Say “Don’t Ask” Repeal Would Hurt Military Chaplains

    Lorence suggested a change would reflect a lack of religious tolerance and mandate a “forced suppression to an orthodoxy that marriage can be defined differently or that certain sexual behaviors are ok and not immoral.”

    So?

  • Michael

    One small correction: while Matthew 19:6 does say “what God has joined together let no man put asunder” a phrase repeated at countless weddings since, Jesus (or the Gospel writer) earlier proclaims in Matthew 5:31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Yes, that’s right-not only was divorce at-will before (for men only, but still) Christians are only to get divorced for “unchastity”, and again it can only be initiated by a husband. This follows where adultery is defined as “lusting in your heart.” So we’re all unchaste adulterers ;)