Truth and Meaning: Religious Freedom?

Truth and Meaning: Religious Freedom?

The news abounds with proposed legislation purporting to defend religious freedom. This raises two important questions: What exactly do we mean when we talk about “religious freedom?” and is religious freedom actually being threatened? I want to draw an important distinction in this debate — the freedom from interference with religious belief and the freedom to act upon one’s religious beliefs.

The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees us that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This provision was later expanded to state and local governments, through the incorporation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The “Establishment Clause” deals with separation of church and state issues, since the presence of any particular religion in public offices or functions, for example, gives the impression of the sanctioning of a state religion. In this case, religious freedom means that people are free from the imposition of religion by the state. The people are not free, however, to act upon their beliefs in a way that imposes those beliefs on the public. The “Free Exercise” clause has been refined many times over the centuries to clarify that the laws are made for the government of actions. Therefore, while the people are free from government interference with religious belief and opinions, government may restrict the ability of people to act on those beliefs if the actions are held to be against the public interest.

For instance, Supreme Court cases have discussed specific religious practices, and ruled such actions legal or illegal. Other times, laws have been passed (such as nondiscrimination clauses in hiring and business practices) that make it illegal to hire or fire someone based on their religious beliefs. In Michigan (according to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976), employers may not discriminate on the basis of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, or marital status.  More than 30 municipalities have since added sexual orientation and gender identity to the list, as well.

But, if you live in Midland, or any other municipality yet to pass such an addendum, you may legally discriminate against LGBT individuals. If the law were to change, however, how would that affect religious freedom? If you believe that homosexuality is an abomination, you remain free to hold that belief. You are also free to believe that racial minorities are inferior, women are incomplete souls, diseased and disabled people are being punished by God, and that divorced people who remarry are living in sin. Nothing changes your religious freedom to believe such things.

You will not be free, necessarily, to act upon that belief in a way that is against the public interest. As a business owner, you are not free to refuse to serve a customer because you don’t believe they are living in a way in which you approve. As a service provider, you do not get to pick and choose clients who meet your judgment of worth and dignity based on your religious beliefs. If you serve the public, you are free from government interference with your beliefs. But the interests of the public override your ability to act based upon your religious beliefs.

If you believe that homosexuality is a sin, then you will always be free to oppose same-sex marriage; to advocate for restricting services to LGBT people; to boycott gay-friendly establishments; and to vote for homophobic candidates for office. When sexual orientation and gender identity become protected classes universally (which they will), you will not be free to act in a way that is injurious to the public interest, and that will include the well-being of LGBT individuals. You will not be free to withhold services from them, fire them or evict them on the basis of their being gay.

And even if you reject these arguments, here is one that cannot be refuted. As a Unitarian Universalist, the first principle of my religious belief is respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I believe that love between consenting adults is Love, whether that love is heterosexual or homosexual. I believe in our principle that every person deserves justice, equity and compassion regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. So if you were to fire me because I am gay or straight, bisexual or transgender, then you are also firing me because I am a Unitarian Universalist. You are firing me for believing the core tenets of my religious faith — and that is a violation of my religious freedom.

You will always be free to disagree with me, boycott my church, even to hate me. But religious freedom in America does not protect your ability to discriminate against me.