Defining “Religious Liberty”

Tomorrow, the South Bend City Council will consider amending its Human Rights Ordinance to include protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

HR Ordinances–while relatively toothless in Indiana–express a municipality’s intent to discourage some people from picking on other people based solely upon their religion, race, gender and other markers that are irrelevant to the question whether those people can pay the rent or perform the duties required for the job.

I’ve agreed to serve as a sort of “expert witness” at the Council hearing, and as a result, over the last week or so I’ve been copied with the various arguments being made in opposition to the proposal. As often happens when I find myself immersed in indignant justifications of homophobia, I’m increasingly feeling like an inhabitant of the Twilight Zone.

One example is the “legal memo” submitted by the Alliance Defense Fund. I’ve seen most of its arguments before–it’s pretty much a retread of similar arguments made when other Indiana cities passed similar measures. The ADF insists that Indiana municipalities lack the authority to pass such ordinances–despite the fact that over the past decade or so several have done so, and none have been challenged. The memorandum mis-characterizes court cases, and engages in the other tactics lawyers resort to when they find themselves on the losing side of a legal argument.

I understand those tactics; at one point or another, we all find ourselves desperately trying to find a legal basis for what are really policy arguments.

The jaw-dropping argument, however, and the most ridiculous claim in the entire 30+ page “brief,” is a claim that the religious exemption is inadequate because it does not protect “religiously motivated” discrimination.

Let’s think about that for a minute.

The proposal before the South Bend Council contains an exemption for religious organizations. This exemption, in my opinion, is entirely appropriate–if your religion disapproves of gay people, or unwed mothers, or atheists, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment forbids government from forcing your church or other religious organization to employ such people. The law requires that we accommodate even beliefs that are at odds with basic American values.

Apparently, however, protecting the right of religious organizations to follow the dictates of their faith–even when those dictates are inconsistent with civil rights laws–isn’t sufficient. According to the ADF argument, if I truly believe gay people are sinners, that belief alone should allow me to discriminate with impunity–If I can’t fire employees I discover are gay, if I can’t refuse to rent to GLBT folks, the government is denying me religious liberty.

This is similar to the argument that anti-bullying legislation infringes the “free speech rights” of the bullies. The argument is apparently that I should be able to pick on gay people—or black people, or women, or Muslims–if I say my motivation is religious.

There’s a yiddish word for that argument: Chutzpah.

Obviously, an exemption for “religious motivation” would eviscerate the law. But this is part and parcel of the worldview of those who oppose equal civil rights for GLBT folks. Stripped of the “legalese” and rhetorical devices, that argument is simple: legislation that is inconsistent with my particular religious beliefs is a denial of my religious liberty.

The religion clauses of the First Amendment require government to be neutral between religions, and between religion and non-religion. To use a sports analogy, government is supposed to be an umpire, not a player. But there are citizens who simply cannot abide the notion of a neutral government–who experience “live and let live” and civic equality as affronts to the primacy to which they feel entitled. In that peculiar worldview, a government that insists on fair play for gay people is a government that’s denying them religious liberty.

I can hear the theme from “Twilight Zone” as I type…..


  1. The theme music has been growing louder and louder for some time now. The basic premise is that if you do not allow me to impose my religious views upon the entire country — well then you are denying me my “Freedom of Religion”, also fashioned as a “War on Christianity”.

  2. Some of your readers may not yet be aware that the South Bend City Council voted 6-3 last night to approve the ordinance. In doing so supporters picked up one more vote than had been expected. Your taking the time to lend your own voice may have helped secure that “icing on the cake”; regarless, your many friends in the Hoosier LGBT community and their friends salute you.

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