PFAW Issues Report on ‘Religious Liberty’ Arguments

One thing we’ve seen happening more and more in recent years is the Christian right invoking the idea of religious liberty to demand exemptions from the same laws that everyone else has to follow. People for the American Way has a new report out about the strategy behind these claims and the history of the concept of religious liberty. It states what ought to be obvious but apparently is not to far too many:

Two decades ago, an extraordinarily broad coalition came together to strengthen legal protections for religious liberty by limiting the government’s authority to substantially burden an individual’s ability to exercise his or her faith. That law was a response to a Supreme Court ruling that threatened to undermine protections for religious minorities, and it reflected a strong, interfaith, bipartisan consensus. Today, however, that consensus has been shattered because social conservatives are trying to turn laws meant to shield individuals’ religious exercise into swords that individuals and corporations can use against anti-discrimination laws and other measures opposed by conservative religious groups.

With Religious Right groups crying “religious persecution” in response to the advance of marriage equality, and the Supreme Court’s conservative majority granting for-profit corporations the right to claim religious exemptions to laws that offend the owners’ religious beliefs, even when that comes at the expense of their employees’ interests, it is a good time to affirm some basic truths:

  • Religious freedom and equality under the law are both core constitutional principles;
  • Religious liberty, while fundamental, is not absolute, in the same way free speech and other constitutionally protected values are not absolute;
  • The government has a compelling interest in promoting public health and preventing discrimination;
  • Judges and other public officials regularly have to make difficult calls when constitutional and civil rights principles come into tension with each other;
  • Having your positions criticized in public discourse is not the same as being subject to persecution; neither is being on a losing end of a legal or policy dispute.

I don’t really agree on the first part. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was indeed a bipartisan consensus at the time, passing both houses of Congress nearly unanimously (three no votes in the House, none in the Senate), but that doesn’t mean it was a good idea or is constitutional. Giving religious people, and only religious people, a “get out of the law free” card is, in my view, an obvious violation of the Equal Protection Clause because it sets up a two-tiered system of laws, one that applies to religious people and one that applies to everyone else.

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  • tbp1

    Yes, as I keep asking when topics like the bakeries or florists who don’t want to serve the icky gay people come up: can anyone break any law they disagree with on religious grounds, or is it just some people and some laws? If the latter, who decides, and if the former, how is the rule of law, or a civil society in the first place, even possible?

  • gshelley

    Generally, they will tell you that some objections aren’t biblically valid (such as not serving mixed race couples, though that would still allow people to refuse to serve couples from the wrong religion). It doesn’t seem to occur to them that it might not be such a great idea (let alone be unconstitutional) for the government to be looking at every religious objection and determining if it has scriptural support

  • marcus

    Ummm… First Amendment? The first point as stated is true. Religious freedom and equality are core constitutional principles. The right to discriminate for religious reason is not, obviously.

  • raven

    These religious privileges under the law also work both ways. They can’t just apply to Oogedy Boogedy xians!!!

    1. There are a lot of New Age groups that use various hallucinogenic drugs in their services, an ancient and widespread idea.

    The court rulings have been all over the place. But some churches have won and a South American drug, Ayahuasca, is legal in some churches in some areas.

    If these hallucinogen using churches catch on, Sunday mornings are going to be “interesting” in a lot of places.

    2. I’m not sure what else can and will end up a religious value that the fundie xians will hate. Abortion as a sacred right. Tolerance as an important virtue. Social Justice. Keynesian economics. Respect for the planetary life support system, Environmentalism. Equality under the law. Education. Valuing reality and science.

    I can see their worst nightmares coming true here.

    Just imagine if some Gaia worshippers actually try to deal with Global Warming , try to save some endangered species, or reduce industrial pollution of our air and water!!!

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    raven “2. I’m not sure what else can and will end up a religious value that the fundie xians will hate. Abortion as a sacred right. Tolerance as an important virtue. Social Justice. Keynesian economics. Respect for the planetary life support system, Environmentalism. Equality under the law. Education. Valuing reality and science.”

    Sure, but that will never happen, since politics never drift and demographics never change. With my fellow Conservative Southern Baptists forming a majority in all the states and DC and our steadfast Conservative Catholic allies on the court bench, we don’t have to worry about other minorities getting their unpopular hands on our Minority Rights, thank goodness..

  • John Pieret

    Want to see a fundie’s head explode? Just remind them that the Supreme Court ruling that threatened to undermine protections for religious minorities and triggered the RFRA held that drug laws against the use of peyote could be enforced even when Native Americans claimed it was being used as part of a religious service.

    Fundangelicals in favor of unChristian druggies!

  • jeevmon

    gshelley @2-

    Of course, they will also argue with the same breath that questioning the correctness or sincerity of religious belief is not allowed. (Hobby Lobby). So, the fact that someone believes that the Bible sets up a racial hierarchy and therefore forbids giving equal treatment to those that the Almighty has deemed inferior should be sufficient to allow them to refuse to serve those people in their restaurant.

  • Sastra

    raven #4 wrote:

    Just imagine if some Gaia worshippers actually try to deal with Global Warming , try to save some endangered species, or reduce industrial pollution of our air and water!!!

    I’m afraid my imagination has them addressing environmental problems by instituting the universal practice of biodynamic agriculture.

  • justsomeguy

    Just now I had a revelation from god. He said he has a lot more revelations for me, but he’ll space them in such a way that they always arrive at the most convenient time for me. He said that the timing of his revelations will be suspiciously convenient to the public, who will perceive me as making stuff up on the fly according to whatever happens to benefit me at the moment. But despite appearances, I will be receiving and communicating the word of god. If you doubt me, consider the fact that god was very clear in his revelation that people would doubt me. Thus, you fulfill his prophecy and prove yourself wrong by contesting or doubting these revelations.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, god said I have a free tropical vacation that I have to go on, and I can’t come back until he says so.

  • llewelly

    I’ve always been of the opinion that the RFRA got strong bipartisan support largely because Christianity itself has strong bipartisan support; neither party has much religious diversity.

  • http://festeringscabofrealityblogspot.com fifthdentist

    raven, now you’re being ridiculous. No one in his or her right mind would drop acid on a Sunday (college students excepted). People who have to go to work the next week need to start tripping Friday evening so as to give their systems maximum time to recover before Monday morning arrives.