Category Archives: Religious Liberty

The Real Problem with the Hobby Lobby Decision

There are lots of things one might say about the Supreme Court’s immensely wrongheaded decision allowing closely-held corporations  to deny birth control coverage to female employees in contravention of the corporation’s “sincere religious convictions.”

We could point to the hypocrisy of an owner who buys lots of merchandise from China, with its mandatory abortion/one child policy, but whose religious sensibilities recoil from offering birth control to female employees who want it.

We could note that, thanks to the Administration’s willingness to accommodate religious paternalism, the costs of coverage didn’t even come out of the corporate pocket–the insurers paid it. How does that “burden” the corporation?

We could certainly consider how this decision fits into the broader backlash against equal rights for women that has characterized American politics for the past decade. Reliable birth control gives women control of their lives, and it’s clear that a significant number of men resent anything that promises women personal autonomy.

We could observe, as one of my sons did, that America is devolving into feudalism–that this case is just one in a series of recent policies and judicial decisions favoring the rights of the powerful over the rights of their serfs. And we could couple that observation with growing dismay over the attribution of “personhood” to entirely fictional beings called corporations. Legal constructs created to facilitate economic activity have now been invested with freedom of speech and religion. (Ironically, this case confers religious rights on legal fictions while taking them away from real, human women.)

And we could–and should–point out that the Supreme Court doesn’t really have the final word: we serfs–i.e. consumers– do. Any woman who shops at Hobby Lobby after this is a traitor to her gender. There may not be legal recourse from a Supreme Court decision–at least, not until or unless we get better Justices and this decision is revisited–but we can certainly encourage fair-minded folks to boycott the theocratic corporate “person” called Hobby Lobby.

All of these thoughts–and some not fit to transmit–went through my head when I learned of the decision. But what really struck me was a warning from a 1992 book by Jane Jacobs. The book was Systems of SurvivalA Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics. It’s a slim volume, and an easy–and fascinating–read. I recommend it. The basic premise was that once we recognize the universal rules of moral conduct (“don’t steal, don’t lie, etc.) there are two very different moral “systems,” a commercial system and a “guardian” or governmental system, with rules that make sense only within the imperatives of that system.

When you apply the moral rules developed for one system to activities properly within the jurisdiction of the other, you really screw things up.

Corporations are not inherently good or evil; they are simply a useful fiction. A line of cases that invests them with human attributes is worse than perverse; it’s dangerous.

Feudalism was bad enough when the Lord of the Manor was human, and would die.


Ignorance on Display

Yesterday’s Indianapolis Star devoted much of its editorial real estate to the same-sex marriage debate. The paper took an editorial position in favor of recognition–an immensely encouraging sign of sanity I never thought to see in my lifetime–and also ran an “editorial dissent” that was a model of respectful disagreement.

Then there were the letters, most prominently a screed from Ryan McCann of Indiana Family Action. It would be hard to find a more perfect example of civic ignorance.

McCann trots out the Right’s usual list of dangerous incursions on “religious liberty,” including the claim that pastors will “come under legal attack” for refusing to marry same-sex couples.

Read my lips: the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment absolutely protects pastors and churches from officiating at weddings incompatible with their theologies. Period. Full stop. Anyone with even a modicum of constitutional knowledge should know better than to make or credit such a bogus claim, and it is a sad sign of how widespread civic ignorance is that the Rabid Right continues to parrot it.

McCann then bemoans the consequences for “small businesses” that refuse to serve same-sex couples (or, one intuits, gay customers generally) for reasons of religious “conscience.” He utterly fails to understand the difference between a church and a doughnut shop, which may tell readers more about his theology than he intended.

When a merchant opens a commercial enterprise, and advertises “come one, come all,” there is an implied transaction with local government; the government provides  streets and sidewalks allowing customers access the business, police and firefighters to ensure its safety, and–in some cities–adequate public transportation to enlarge the pool of potential  customers. In return for those services–necessary in order for a retailer to thrive– government asks that the owner pay his taxes, clear snow from his sidewalk, and honor that “come one, come all” invitation.

Catholic shopowners don’t get to refuse service to divorced and remarried customers; Jewish merchants don’t get to reject people who munched on BLTs before browsing the merchandise. Business owners whose “sincere beliefs” include a healthy amount of racism no longer get to turn away African-Americans. (Indeed, McCann’s letter echoes earlier laments from Southerners whose “liberty” to discriminate against black customers was being infringed by those hateful civil rights laws.)

So yes, “open for business” probably means open to anyone who wants to buy your cupcakes.

On the other hand, if your God tells you that gay people are all sinners headed for hell, your pastor and your church can continue  to operate on that theory, and the nasty old government can’t touch you.

You are protected by the Constitution that you evidently read as selectively and uncomprehendingly as you read that bible you keep thumping.




Greg Zoeller, Mike Pence, Micah Clark and the Dustbin of History

Well–yesterday certainly was a DAY in Indiana!

Federal Judge Richard Young–no wild-eyed ‘librul’– issued a beautifully-crafted, soundly-sourced opinion invalidating Indiana’s ban on same-sex marriages. As a (recovering) lawyer, I read the entire decision with appreciation for its logic and application of precedent; it was extremely well-written, without more than occasional resort to the “legalese” that jurists so often employ.

As quotable as much of the 36-page opinion is, however, my favorite paragraph is this:

“In less than a year, every federal district court to consider the issue has reached the same conclusion in thoughtful and thorough opinions–laws prohibiting the celebration and recognition of same-sex marriages are unconstitutional. It is clear the the fundamental right to marry shall not be deprived to some individuals based solely on the person they choose to love. In time, Americans will look at the marriage of couples such as Plaintiffs, and refer to it simply as marriage–not a same-sex marriage. These couples, when gender and sexual orientation are taken away, are in all respects like the family down the street. The Constitution demands that we treat them as such.

At virtually the same time as Judge Young handed down his ruling, the 10th district Court of Appeals was upholding lower court decisions invalidating Oklahoma and Utah bans.

It’s over. I know that is a bitter pill for our elected homophobes to swallow, let alone the folks whose fundraising depends upon demonizing gay folks, but it could hardly have come as a surprise. The handwriting has been on all the walls for several years now.

It’s past time for Greg Zoeller to stop spending Hoosier dollars defending discrimination. His determination to appeal a decision that mirrors every other decision the courts have handed down is an exercise in futility, a waste of time and money, but of course, he and Pence and the other Professional Christians can’t help themselves.

They refuse to understand that they already live in the dustbin of history.

Come Out to Come In

Here’s my sermon for your Sunday.

Back in the early days of the women’s movement, an oft-repeated mantra was “the personal is the political.” The point was that unless an issue was personal, you were unlikely to bother engaging it politically.

There’s research confirming the insight. Academics who study civic engagement talk about the connection between “salience” and action—the personal importance of any particular issue is one predictor of that individual’s political involvement.

This accords with common sense: unless something matters to you, you are unlikely to participate in political advocacy around that issue.

“Coming out” is the perfect political expression of that insight. People who may have favored equal rights for GLBT folks in the abstract found the issue much more salient when they realized that their own friend or family member was one of those subject to marginalization and discrimination. Suddenly, being an ally meant something more affirmative than refraining from opposition, or expressing an inclusive sentiment at a cocktail party.

It seems so obvious to us now, but in the early days of the gay rights movement, coming out was a real gamble—a gamble that might not have worked, and that took a great deal of courage. Until there was a critical mass of “out” gay folks, out was a lonely and sometimes dangerous place to be. Being “out and proud” didn’t simply risk social disapproval—jobs were lost, families estranged, friendships shattered.

Today, after a generation of activism, we can say with some assurance that the gay community is in “mop up” mode. There’s still a good deal of bigotry, but thanks to coming out, the handwriting on the civic wall reads “Come on in.” Out gays hold elective office, enjoy marriage equality in more and more states, and participate in Pride celebrations that are more celebratory and less defiant than in the old days.

If we needed any more evidence of the success of the gay rights movement, it can be found in the fact that other despised minorities are looking to the GLBT community for strategic guidance.

In a blog earlier this week, I referenced a meeting of the Secular Coalition for America. The Coalition includes a variety of organizations concerned with the marginalization of non-believers, the war on women and science, religiously-based homophobia, and especially with efforts by “bible-believing” conservatives to move America toward “godliness”—aka theocratic laws.

Coalition members want non-theists to emulate the central strategy of the gay civil rights movement, and come out.

According to recent Pew data, nonbelievers—defined as those who answer “none” when asked about their religious affiliations—number around 20% of the American population. In 2000, some 14% of the public self-identified as part of the Religious Right. And yet, the Religious Right exercises immensely more political power than the religiously disengaged. They haven’t just been drivers of the culture wars and efforts to recast discrimination as “religious liberty,” they have been the most effective foot soldiers in the war on science.

Lawmakers—and not just Republicans—fall over themselves to pander to the obsessions of that 14%, because unlike the “nones,” they’ve been so public and visible that we think there are more of them than there really are.

Think how much more rational and inclusive our politics would be if even half of the “nones” came out and worked with the many reasonable religious folks to demand equal treatment and respect for all Americans, whatever their beliefs or lack thereof.

Why We Need More “Out” Secularists

Politics is largely a power struggle, and when any one group or constituency amasses disproportionate power, democracy and liberty suffer. We tend to see the disproportion most clearly when money is involved–hence the current focus on the 1%–but checkbooks aren’t  the only way special interests gain control.

When I was growing up, unions were powerful (yes, I’m old). In my house, they were feared and despised. Union “thugs”were a periodic feature of the landscape in Anderson, Indiana, where Delco Remy, Guide Lamp and other large automotive manufacturers were the source of most employment, and where folks who lived in our little “suburb” of Edgewood tended to come from management.

One of the reasons unions lost power was that some of them abused their (short-lived) dominance. But–surprise!–by emasculating unions, rather than simply constraining them, we enabled equivalent abuses by management. The lesson was–and is–that a balance of power is what’s important. When power is concentrated, abuses are inevitable.

So what does any of this have to do with secularism?

I spent the last weekend with a coalition of secularist groups: humanists, atheists, defenders of science and reason, among others. Their common mission is to restore the necessary balance between secular and religious-right Americans.

Here’s the take-away: in a country founded on the premise that authentic belief must be personal and freely chosen, a country where freedom of conscience includes not only the right to worship but the right to question and/or reject religion, it is unhealthy–indeed, it is positively dangerous–when the balance of political power favors biblical literalists and would-be theocrats.

Don’t get me wrong: those who want to revise history to make ours a “Christian” nation are entitled to their beliefs. They are entitled to bring those beliefs into the public square and to argue for their adoption. But they are not entitled to use the power of the state to impose their beliefs on the rest of us, or to marginalize and demean those who do not share them, or to demand that American policies reflect them.

When the voices of self-righteous literalists threaten to drown out the voices of other citizens–be they Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, secularists or Rastifarians–America has a problem. When religion is used as a weapon against science, the whole world has a problem.

In the United States, the past decades have seen a rising dominance of those I can only call Christian thugs. Much like the union thugs of my youth, these folks are flexing their political muscles. They have completely taken over one of America’s two political parties, and they have twisted and distorted the meaning of religious liberty: suddenly, “liberty” is the right of an employer to dictate the reproductive choices of his female employees, the right of a merchant to discriminate against GLBT customers, the right of governing bodies to begin public meetings with exclusionary prayers, and the right of churches to ignore laws the rest of us must follow.

These folks absolutely have a right to a place at the civic table. But so do the rest of us.

Reasonable religious folks and secularists alike, all of us who understand that government must remain a secular institution, need to emulate the gay community.

We need to come out and demand our place at the civic table.