I’ve been pretty hard on Indiana’s General Assembly, and I’d argue deservedly so, but I certainly don’t want to give anyone the impression that we Hoosiers have cornered legislative incompetence. Over at Peacock Panache, for example, Tim Peacock reports on a bill introduced in Arizona, in the wake of Governor Brewer’s veto of that state’s badly misnamed “Religious Liberty” bill.
Apparently, the right of religious folks to discriminate based upon their sincere beliefs is the issue du jour.
Yesterday’s post centered upon a subset of that debate, but the broader question is the one posed by an Arizona law currently awaiting Governor Jan Brewer’s signature. That measure–which has most of the state’s business community demanding a veto–would allow shop owners and merchants to refuse service to people to whom they have some sort of religious objection.
Observers have assumed that the law is intended to target the GLBT community, but as written, it protects a merchant’s right to refuse service to anyone, so long as the proprietor can claim a “sincere” religious belief as motivation.
It boils down to a fairly simple question. Does government violate a fundamental liberty by forcing a devout person to do business with people he believes to be sinful?
As the saying goes, this debate is deja vu all over again.
This is the same argument that erupted when Congress enacted the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Opponents argued that being forced to hire or do business with women or people of color violated their liberty to choose their associates. And they were correct; it did limit their liberty. Of course, in a civilized society, our liberties are constrained in all sorts of ways; I don’t have the liberty to take your property, or play loud music next to your house at 2:00 a.m., or drive my car 100 miles per hour down a city street. Etc.
Here’s the deal: The guy who opens a bakery– or a shoe store or a bank or any other business– relies on an implied social contract. He expects police and fire departments to protect his store, and local government to maintain the streets that enable people to get there–and he expects government to provide those and numerous other services to all citizens, not just white citizens or male citizens or Christian citizens. In return for financing the government that provides those services, We the People expect those who are “open for business” to provide cakes or shoes or loans to anyone willing to pay for them.
Opening a business implies a “come one, come all” invitation to the general public. (For purely practical reasons, people who don’t want to issue that invitation probably shouldn’t open a business.)
Bottom line: If you don’t approve of gay people, or African-Americans or Jews, or whoever–don’t invite them over for dinner. I’ll fight for your right to entertain only the people you like. I’ll fight for your right to exclude “sinners” from your church, your private club and your living room.
Your hardware store, not so much.
I guess one person’s discrimination is another’s religious liberty.
The most contentious provisions of George W. Bush’s “Faith-Based Initiative” were those that proposed to allow organizations doing business with government to discriminate on the basis of religion. The Initiative has largely faded away, but the debate –as we saw yesterday in the Indiana General Assembly–keeps popping up.
Here’s a scenario that may help illuminate the issue: Church X feeds the hungry in a soup kitchen in its basement. If local government pays for both the soup and an employee hired to ladle the soup, can Church X refuse to hire a soup ladler who does not live in accordance with Church X’s beliefs? i.e., an unwed mother, a GLBT person, a Jew?
If Church X were using its own money to run the soup kitchen, it could hire who it wants. It could even require the hungry to pray over their soup. The Free Exercise Clause protects churches from anti-discrimination laws inconsistent with their teachings (it would be ludicrous to insist that Baptists consider hiring an atheist Sunday School teacher). Free Exercise protects Eric Miller’s pastors no matter how extreme their anti-gay rhetoric.
But (you knew there was a “but,” didn’t you?) that’s when they are using their own money.
When a religious organization has a contract with government–when it accepts tax dollars to provide a secular service–citizens have the right to expect that the service will be provided in a non-discriminatory way. We have a right to insist that people whose salaries we are paying with our tax dollars be protected against discrimination–including discrimination based upon religious dogma.
Most states agree, and most have laws providing that when governments contract with private or nonprofit organizations–including religious organizations–the contractor must agree to abide by the state’s civil rights laws.
Yesterday, Eric Turner tried to change that longstanding practice. Perhaps he was “getting even” for losing the second sentence of HJR 3. Perhaps–as one reporter suggested–he was trying to rescue Indiana Wesleyan University‘s workforce training contract. (Turner filed the measure shortly after the state rejected a longstanding workforce training contract with Wesleyan. The attorney general’s office determined language allowing the Christian university to hire in part based on religion violated state law.)
Whatever his motive, Turner proposed amending Indiana’s civil rights law to allow religious institutions doing business with the state to hire and fire employees for religious reasons.
The measure narrowly passed the House Ways and Means Committee, but Speaker Brian Bosma killed the measure shortly after it sparked a heated debate on Twitter. (His experience with HJR 3 may have dampened his enthusiasm for culture war politics.)
Look, if despising GLBT people, or Jews or Muslims or whoever, is really, really important to your religious organization, go for it! Hire people based upon religious criteria, provide services only to people who agree with you, preach your dogma to whoever will listen. No problem.
Just don’t demand tax dollars to subsidize those activities.
No one is interfering with your freedom to discriminate. We’re simply declining to finance it.
In the wake of Mike Delph’s bizarre meltdown, and his obvious inability to distinguish between his personal (and idiosyncratic) religious commitments and his civic and constitutional responsibilities, I couldn’t help thinking of The Book of Mormon.
Bear with me here.
For those of you who have yet to see the musical, Book of Mormon is both a delightful comic entertainment and a meditation on the role of religion in human society, for good or ill. While the ostensible subject is Mormonism, the real subject is the uses to which religious commitments are put, and the various harms done by unquestioning adherence to dogma.
When youthful ”Elders” from Salt Lake City are sent to Uganda to convert the villagers, they find horrific conditions: widespread AIDS, hunger, poverty and hopelessness. The blond, blue-eyed, privileged Americans are steadfast in their beliefs; they sing of the “spooky Mormon hell dreams” that follow even minor indiscretions, of the “little Mormon trick” of “turning off” and denying unapproved sexual impulses, and–in my favorite, a song called “I Believe”– they affirm all manner of (implausible) doctrinal beliefs, including the belief that “in 1978, God changed his mind about black people.”
Elder Cunningham, one of the missionaries and the play’s comic relief, is a reluctant apostate: when a member of the tribe announces his belief that he can cure his AIDS by raping a baby, the appropriately appalled Cunningham invents a scriptural passage about AIDS that forbids such behavior (and substitutes a frog…you really need to see the show.)
This spontaneous invention–and many others that follow, including a divine prohibition against genital mutilation and commanded reverence for the clitoris–is clearly not consistent with Mormon doctrine. But it’s just as clearly humane and socially useful. And in fact, Cunningham’s version of Mormonism (which owes a considerable debt to Star Wars) is wildly successful with the Ugandans.
This musical morality tale brings us back to what I am going to call the Delph Dilemma.
Every religion has its doctrinal fundamentalists, a minority of believers for whom (their version of) the letter is far more important than the original spirit or purpose of religious law. And that’s fine, so long as we all recognize the wisdom of the First Amendment’s religion clauses, which essentially say “Okay folks, you have a right to believe what you want, and to live in accordance with those beliefs (at least until you start sacrificing small children or violating other basic laws of society). But you don’t get to make the rest of us live by your rules, especially when those rules require marginalizing those who are different.”
People like Mike Delph and Eric Miller and Micah Clark have an absolute right to their belief in a God who doesn’t want gay people to get married. They have an absolute right to throw a hissy fit (on twitter or elsewhere) when they lose a legislative battle. Those of us who see religion as one of many ways humans approach questions of ethics and morality, one of many way we try to understand our obligations to the other humans with whom we share this planet–have a right to think and live differently, and in our system, the government doesn’t get to make anyone’s religious doctrine the law of the land.
Although none of us has the right to impose our preferred religious doctrines on others, we do each have a right–perhaps even a duty–to assess whether any particular belief system ultimately encourages loving-kindness or abets mean-spiritedness– whether any particular worldview promotes amity or enmity.
We get to decide which is better: the dogma that sacrifices the baby, or the modification that targets the frog.
Surveys from Pew and Gallup and other respected pollsters have identified sharp declines in Americans’ religiosity, especially among the young. Some twenty percent of Americans currently report no religious affiliation; among younger cohorts, the percentage is much higher.
The other day, I had a conversation with someone who viewed this rejection of traditional religion with alarm, and wondered what might have caused it. (Video games? Bad parenting? The ACLU, with its insistence on obeying the First Amendment?)
I have a different perspective.
I talk to a lot of students, and what I hear from them is that they are repelled by ostentatious piety displayed by high-profile people who are being hateful or judgmental. They are contemptuous of the fundamentalists’ war on science. They are impatient with people who want to use government to impose their own religious beliefs on others–who want to deny women access to birth control, and who refuse to support equal treatment of their GLBT friends. They roll their eyes when people like Bill O’Reilly or Sarah Palin whine about a “War on Christmas.”
As impatient as they are with rampant hypocrisy, however, the rise of the nones is not simply a reaction to Christians (and Jews and Muslims) behaving badly. The young Americans I know take issues of social justice and ethical behavior very seriously, and a growing number of them have concluded that any morality worthy of the name must be a product of reason rather than blind obedience to dogma.
They are examining all beliefs–secular and religious–and they are testing outcomes. If a belief system promises to improve society, if it promotes equal human dignity and compassionate and loving behavior, it passes the test. If it generates power struggles, if it requires women to be “submissive” and consigns GLBT folks to second-class status–if it marginalizes or denigrates those who are different– it fails.
Works for me.