Whose Religious Freedom?

I spoke this weekend at the Community Progressive event in Julia Davis Park. Here’s a recap of my remarks, updated in light of the Supreme Court ruling today.

There seems to be some confusion in our political and cultural discourse lately about what, exactly, constitutes “religious freedom”.

The idea of religious freedom is deeply coded into American culture, as many of our ancestors were fleeing religious persecution and sought the freedom to worship as they were called.

A portion of the scope of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution is that it prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, or impeding the free exercise of religion,

While freedom of belief is allowed, freedom of practices that run counter to neutrally enforced criminal laws is NOT always allowed.

If you claimed your religious tradition required child sacrifice, for example, your case would not find much traction in the court.

Belief vs. Practice
That’s the tension.

The Supreme Court ruled this morning in a landmark case that for-profit corporations are entitled to religious freedom to be granted exceptions from neutral laws.

The successful challenge was brought by the owners of Hobby Lobby, (Baptists), an arts and crafts chain, and the owners of Conestoga Wood (Mennonites), a cabinet maker.

Both sued for relief from a mandate under the Affordable Care Act that for-profit businesses include emergency contraceptives for female employees in their insurance plans at no extra cost. The companies said the requirement to cover contraceptives, like Plan B, violates their religious liberty.

The lawsuits were not, technically, about the First Amendment. It’s about whether the birth control mandate passes muster under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says laws that substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion be narrowly tailored to meet a compelling governmental interest.

This is a very disturbing ruling. It opens the door to other companies deciding they have religious objections to things too–like women working at all?, like maternity care if they believe women should be home with their children and not in the work place?, like requiring women be veiled?

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her scathing dissent of this vote:

“Would the exemption…extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations[?]…Not much help there for the lower courts bound by today’s decision.”

Religious Freedom has been in the news in many other ways too.

Here in Idaho, we had a bill before the legislature this past year that was supposedly intended to protect religious liberty.

It was inspired by lawsuits, successfully filed by people who were denied services for wedding cakes or wedding photographers because the owners of the companies did not want to support same gender marriage.

It did not pass in Idaho, but similar laws fared better in other states. The state attorney general’s office said the bill was unconstitutional.

There has also been a recent spate of people claiming religious freedom objections to vaccinations for their children. The families were free to keep their children un-vaccinated, but when outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases broke out, the court ruled the school district was allowed to keep those un-vaccinated children home and away from school.

You can choose NOT to vaccinate your children, although I remain unclear on what possible religious grounds you’d be doing that. But your religious freedom does NOT mean you have the freedom to be in public schools and give other people measles.

All of these cases bring up the tension inherent in the expression of religious freedom.

Where does one person’s religious freedom cross the line to violate, or even endanger, another person’s safety, health, freedom, or well being? And how in the world does a corporation like Hobby Lobby have religious freedom that is allowed to supersede the freedoms of the people it employs? Baffling.

Religious freedom means you and I and everyone else has the choice to worship, or not worship, the Divine creator however we may like to do that.

It means I can go to a Presbyterian Church and preach from the pulpit (which I do each week), or it means I could determine to worship Allah in a mosque, or attend Shabbat services at the synagogue.

It means I could worship Thor and Wotan and hope to end up in Valhalla.

I could worship a tree.

I could worship at St.Arbucks while reading the liturgy of the New York Times. (I confess that one holds much appeal).

And while I am at the particular house of worship I choose to use my religious freedom to attend, the particular religion can choose to impart particular rules or customs on its adherents.

So the Catholic Church is allowed to declare women can’t serve as priests, even if the Idaho Human Rights Codes bar discrimination against women. That’s religious freedom.

The Catholic Church can also instruct its adherents not to use birth control or have an abortion. That’s religious freedom.

82% of American Catholics believe birth control is morally acceptable, despite what their tradition dictates. That’s also religious freedom.

Religious freedom DOES NOT mean the Catholic Church (or the church of Hobby Lobby, for that matter) can prohibit non-catholics (or Hobby Lobby employees who do not share the owners religious tradition) from having access to birth control through health care plans. Although now, I guess, it means exactly that. Oh Supreme Court, what are we to do with you?

Photo by Doug Mills, NY Times

Photo by Doug Mills, NY Times

Also note that these companies with “family values” and “religious freedom” are not objecting to insurance coverage of vasectomies, or viagra or other erectile dysfunction medications for men, because we only care to limit women’s sexual expression. And the same “religious freedom” they demand is always a very narrowly defined evangelical Christian conservative freedom.

This is discrimination. Religious freedom should mean nobody can force you to use birth control if you are opposed to it on religious grounds. Prohibiting access to birth control women who do not share your religious views is not freedom.

Several traditions of Islam require women to be veiled when in public.
When a Muslim woman is free to wear a veil in public, that is religious freedom.
Requiring women who do not follow Islam to be veiled (in this country, at least) is discrimination, not religious freedom.

In terms of the gay wedding cake case, you have a religious freedom NOT to marry someone of the same gender. But when you have a business that operates in the public market, you have to treat everyone equally.

Many people have said, “couldn’t the couples have just gone to another bakery, so they didn’t have to have homophobia baked right in to their cake?

And sure, that would be easier all around.

But let’s carry that out to some possible consequences of allowing that kind of discrimination from a business.

You live in a small town that has only one bakery. If they won’t bake you a wedding cake, where are you supposed to go?

How would we respond to a Muslim owned bakery that wouldn’t serve women unless they were veiled?

How would we respond to a Catholic owned bakery that wouldn’t sell wedding cakes to people who had previously been divorced and were getting married again?

If a baker or photographer, and the church they attend, want to greet LGBTQ people at the door to their sanctuary and tell them they are less-than, unworthy, and undeserving of God’s love and mercy, that would be a really mean and nasty thing to do, but it would be religious freedom.

Yet religious freedom doesn’t allow for one to enforce their views on anyone outside the doors of their house of worship.

Again, belief vs. practice.

Once they leave their church and interact in society, they need to leave their religious practice at the doors of their church and treat everyone they meet with fair and honest behavior.

I’d also suggest they should look at their faith and ask some hard questions.

What does it say about the God you worship, if you need to judge and discriminate against your fellow citizens in order to faithfully worship said God? How small is your God if this God needs your defending and legal privilege?

By enforcing our constitutional provisions for exercise and establishment of religion, especially when it protects a freedom you may not agree with, we strengthen the very freedoms we’ve held dear for over 200 years.

And a closing note– to the LGBTQ Idahoans who have been turned away and excluded from their faith communities in the name of religious freedom, I’m sorry. You deserve better than that from people who worship the God of peace, love, and mercy. I’d be happy to welcome you to the congregation I serve or help you find another one that would be a good fit for you because that exclusionary message of Christianity is not preached in many good churches I know.

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4 thoughts on “Whose Religious Freedom?

  1. Once again you’ve written a wonderful thoughtful commentary on the subjects close to my heart. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Marci Glass: Whose Religious Freedom? | THINKI...

  3. Pingback: the Faith of Discrimination | Glass Overflowing

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