Most us have experienced the lunacy that is airport security in the 21st century. Scans and X-rays, rubber glove pat downs, removing shoes and belts, tiny shampoo bottles. My blood pressure rises whenever I think of the enormous expenditure of time and energy from millions of travelers dealing with our fear of flying.
And yet, I can buy a gun at a garage sale without a background check. I can stalk and kill an unarmed child and claim I was standing my ground. Our police are beating and killing people without facing any substantial consequences.
All of this fear. And while we are so focused on perceived threats to our liberties, another far more insidious force chips away at the bedrock foundation of our nation’s principles. Under the guise of so-called “religious freedom” bills, such as Michigan’s H.B. 5958, legislators and advocacy groups are seeking to destroy the First Amendment protection of freedom of religion.
Bryan Fischer, spokesperson for the American Family Association, now claims that the Constitutional protection only applies to Christian religions and that states can discriminate against non-Christians at will. In a classic slippery slope diatribe, “If First Amendment Isn’t Just About Christianity, We Have to Allow Satanism,” Fischer writes that “most Americans, even educated ones, do not understand this basic fact about the First Amendment: that by the word “religion” in the First Amendment, the Founders meant only the various expressions of Christianity.” And despite the fact that such attempts have often been rejected or overturned at the federal level, he argues that the “regulation of every other form of religious expression is reserved to the states, who then have complete latitude to restrain or permit religious expression as they see fit.”
So, if Mr. Fischer has his way, existing state nondiscrimination clauses will disappear for Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, those who do not identify with any religion, and others. That group alone constitutes more than one-quarter of Americans — more than 85 million people. But why stop there? I doubt that Mr. Fischer has any intention of protecting faith traditions he doesn’t consider “legitimately” Christian, such as the Church of Latter Day Saints and even Catholics — after all, only one signer of the Declaration of Independence was Catholic. Perhaps Mr. Fischer believes that our Constitutional guarantee to freedom of religion is reserved for the Protestant minority in this country.
The Founders of this great nation intended for every citizen to have the right to believe as they wished and to practice their religion in their own way. They intended religious freedom to be one of our country’s fundamental values. But that freedom does not give any of us the right to harm others. H.B. 5958 will allow people to take advantage and put their religious beliefs ahead on the common good. H.B. 5958 could allow individuals to decide that nondiscrimination laws, child abuse laws and domestic violence laws don’t apply to them. H.B. 5958 opens up local governments to expensive lawsuits from those who claim they have a religious right to ignore any municipal laws.
Other states with similar legislation have already seen individuals and groups use religious freedom as justification for all sorts of behavior, some of it criminal. For example, police officers have used religious freedom as an excuse to refuse orders they claimed offended their personal religious views. A police officer in Oklahoma asserted a religious objection to his community policing duties at a mosque, claiming a “moral dilemma.” Pharmacists in many states (including Arizona, Montana and Wisconsin) have used religious freedom as a defense for refusing to dispense daily birth control. A pastor helped kidnap a child in Virginia from her legal guardian and cited religious freedom as his legal defense. In New Mexico, a local religious leader cited the state religious freedom statute when he appealed a conviction for sexually abusing two teenagers. A federal judge just held that a state religious freedom law prevented the Department of Labor from fully investigating possible child labor law violations because the individual under investigation said that his religious beliefs forbade him from discussing those matters with the government.
One of our most important values is treating others the way we want to be treated. Legislation like H.B. 5958 will add another fear to our lives by putting individuals’ religious beliefs ahead of the common good. Call your legislators and tell them to vote “no” on H.B. 5958. Tell them to keep the true flag of religious freedom flying as the Founders intended. And tell Bryan Fischer of the American Fear Association that he does not speak for Americans of faith.