When Religious Freedom Isn’t Freedom

Last week, Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas signed the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, a bill designed to prohibit the government from interfering with any religious liberties. The Kansas law was drafted in the style of the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court said RFRA could not be applied to the states, but that states could enact similar laws. The Kansas law had been modified from its original form: language that would have allowed discrimination against LGBTQ people was removed.

There seems to be a belief in this country that anything done in the name of “religious freedom” should be untouchable under the law. Should this be the case? Should anyone, anywhere in this country, be allowed to do anything at all in the name of religious freedom?

What about the religious freedoms of the Hopi tribe, which sacrifices endangered golden eagles?

What about the religious freedoms of parents who allow their children to die rather than seek treatment for diseases and conditions like diabetes?

What about companies whose directors have religious objections to birth control, so refuse to provide it in their employees’ health care plans?

At what point does the exercise of religious liberty become too onerous for us to bear?

When the exercise of religious freedom means that someone else will come to harm, or that someone else’s rights and opportunities will be compromised, the religious interests must take a back seat to the exercise of personal freedom by the victim of the religious zealot. We cannot allow one person or group to impose their religious standards on the rest of us, even if it is in the sacred name of their religion.

Not if their religion tells them gay sex is icky. Not if their religion tells them biology is wrong. Not if their religion explains how to enslave someone properly. Not if their religion tells them some people are more equal than others. Not if their religion demands physical mutilation of genitalia. Not if their religion tells them physics is impossible. Not if their religion tells them that a woman’s body is not her own. Not if their religion tells them rape is moral, or murder is okay if they do it in the name of their god. Not if their religion tells them they, and only they, have a right to a certain acre of ground and no one else can be there, no matter how long the other person and his family may have lived there. Not on a boat, not with a goat.

We are free to believe what we believe in this country. No theocrat can control our minds, and no theocrat should be permitted to pass laws proscribing or compelling behavior based on his doctrine and dogma.  American theocrats who insist on passing laws to support their own religious beliefs, regardless of whether there are good, non-religious reasons for those laws, is no better than the Taliban or any other dictator. They should not be permitted in office.

The thing about laws is that they should proscribe the least restrictive standards society will tolerate, not the most restrictions, and not even ideal restrictions. For real religious freedom, laws should allow people to act on their own consciences unless and until their behavior impacts another person. Laws should not restrict how we govern ourselves in our personal lives, but the minimum acceptable standard of behavior toward other people. That means no stealing, no cheating, and no wanton killing. That doesn’t mean regulating how we have sex and with whom, what we may do with our own bodies, who we are allowed to love, or who our families are allowed to be. It means teaching public school children only nonreligious ideals. It means teaching science in science class, not teaching the Bronze Age mythology of one particular Middle Eastern tribe in science class. It means no state-sanctioned, preferential treatment of religion, ever. It means not abdicating responsibility to a community as a whole by claiming your religion lets you opt out.

When someone claims a violation of religious freedom, but is complaining only about what other people are allowed to do that he doesn’t like, his religious freedom is not being violated. The truth is, he wants to violate someone else’s freedom, to compel them to the ideal behavior he aspires to.

And when homophobic conservative lawmakers tap their toes for gay sex in airport bathrooms after voting to discriminate against gay people, they are not only hypocrites, they expect a society built on the notion of equality to accept that there should be double standards. There should never, ever be double standards.

No matter what they claim, those theocrats do not believe in religious freedom at all. Instead, they use the phrase “religious freedom” in order to persecute and suppress religions they don’t like or do not understand. That isn’t freedom.

That’s the Inquisition, by another name.

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Got a legal question? Email me at anne@aramink.com. I’m a lawyer, but there’s only a 2% chance I’m licensed in your state. Whether I answer your question or not, sending me an email or reading this blog post does not create an attorney-client relationship between us. I’m on Twitter as @aramink, and you can see my regular blog at www.aramink.com, where I write book reviews, ruminate on Life, the Universe, and Everything, and occasionally – frequently – rant about Stuff.

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About Anne

Civil rights activist Anne Orsi is one of the spokespeople for the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers and is the primary organizer of Reason in the Rock, a conference on science, secularism and skepticism. Got a question? Email her at anne@aramink.com. She's a lawyer but may not be licensed in your state. Sending her an email or reading her blog posts does not create an attorney-client relationship. Find Anne on Twitter as @aramink, and read her regular blog at www.aramink.com.


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