Religious Liberty, Executive Orders, and Laws of General Application

Religious liberty seems so simple. Everyone should have the right to believe what they want and practice what they believe. Right?

So…a few questions, as we await yet another Executive Order--this time, addressing Trump’s (or more probably, Pence’s) version of religious liberty.

Should parents whose beliefs include what we Westerners call genital mutilation–what they call female circumcision–be allowed to perform that surgery on children who are too young to give informed consent? If not, how do we distinguish that practice from the routine circumcision of male babies, especially Jewish infants?

Should parents who believe in faith healing be allowed to refuse medical treatment for their minor children?

Should churches that depend upon local police and fire protection, and who benefit from other city services, be exempt from paying the property taxes that fund those services?

Should devout individuals who believe that God wants to keep the races separate and women subservient be allowed to ignore nondiscrimination laws? If not, how do proponents justify ignoring civil rights laws that protect LGBTQ citizens?

Do parents who want a religious education for their children have a right to taxpayer subsidies of that education? If secular taxpayers are justified in objecting to voucher programs that support religious schools, how is that objection different (as a thoughtful commenter asked yesterday) from the theory of the Hobby Lobby case, in which the court said a religious employer had the right to refuse a federal mandate requiring coverage of birth control?

Let me answer that last question first.

The problem with the Hobby Lobby decision was its attribution of religious belief to a corporate entity. The Court was not faced with a situation in which an individual shopkeeper or business owner relied upon religious liberty as a defense to providing his employees with birth control coverage; the central issue was whether the religious beliefs of a closely-held corporation’s major shareholders could be asserted by the business entity.

In Citizens United, the Court bestowed free speech rights on the legal fiction that is corporate existence. In Hobby Lobby, it extended that fiction. Corporations–Mitt Romney to the contrary–are not people, and the notion they should be entitled to be treated as indistinguishable from human beings for purposes of constitutional analysis is troubling, to put it mildly.

But let’s go back to the initial inquiry: should individuals (the breathing kind) be allowed to violate generally applicable laws with which they disagree, if that disagreement is based upon their theological commitments?

We don’t accept even the most passionate philosophical disagreement as an excuse for lawbreaking. Pacifists who withhold taxes meant for the Defense Department, environmentalists who drive nails into trees and protestors who engage in various types of civil disobedience are all aware that they will be punished for breaking laws that were duly passed and generally applicable. Why should people claiming religious motives for behaviors deemed socially harmful be entitled to special treatment?

The Courts have struggled with the questions with which I began this post, and with other conflicts between individual belief and government’s obligation to protect the vulnerable and insure civil equality. They haven’t always gotten the balance right–more “traditional” (dare I say “established”?) religions have often gotten a pass for behaviors not tolerated when practiced by less “mainstream” faiths. But the answer to such inequities is not the Pence approach, which would privilege otherwise lawless behaviors when the ostensible motive is “religion.”

What the Courts have generally gotten right is the basic principle: in the United States, people are free to believe–and preach–pretty much anything. But they are only free to act upon those beliefs until those actions harm others, or violate a law of general application.

Ironically, it’s the most outspoken and judgmental critics of Islamic theocrats who want to elevate religious doctrine (only theirs, of course) over secular laws of general application. Apparently, in their view, a Christian Taliban is different.

To the rest of us, not so much.


Deconstructing “Special Rights”

I heard someone make the claim again yesterday: gays want “special rights.”

So let me understand this argument:  If government respects the civil rights of Christians—and if Human Rights agencies protect those Christians from being picked on because of their beliefs—that’s simply government protecting equal rights.

But if government treats LGBT folks just like it treats everyone else—if it empowers those same Human Rights agencies to protect gay folks from being picked on because of their sexual orientation—that’s “special rights.”

When laws protect Christians, that isn’t a violation of the religious liberty of Jews, Muslims or atheists—it is a simple recognition that all religious people are entitled to hold their beliefs freely, without fear of discrimination. But if laws protect gays and lesbians, that’s an impermissible endorsement of the “gay lifestyle” and a violation of the religious liberty of those Christians who condemn homosexuality.

Got it.

I routinely encounter people who hold these logically incompatible beliefs, and to be honest, I’m getting pissed off. One of these days, I’m going to get in the face of one of these “Christian Nation” folks and demand to know just how they manage to twist the definition of “liberty” to mean their  right to impose their beliefs on those who don’t share them.

We’ve had the “special rights” accusation—lame as it is—for quite some time. But the charge that requiring businesses to treat people fairly violates “religious liberty” is a relatively new wrinkle on that argument—and it is driving me up the wall.

I posted recently about a hearing at which the South Bend, Indiana, Common Council was considering the addition of sexual orientation and gender identity to the categories covered by the city’s Human Rights ordinance. The measure passed handily, but not before a number of people asserted that forcing them to hire or retain qualified GLBT workers, or rent to same-sex couples, would violate their religious freedom.

Very similar claims were made when the Obama Administration ruled that employer-provided health insurance had to cover birth control for female employees who wanted it.

The argument seems to be that “religious freedom” means government can never interfere with me if I am acting on the basis of a genuine religious belief. That, needless to say, is not and never has been the law—I may sincerely believe that I should sacrifice my first born, or deny my child medical treatment, or smoke peyote during a religious ceremony, but the law doesn’t allow me to do any of those things, or hundreds of others, merely because I claim a genuine belief that God wants me to.

One reason that isn’t the law should be fairly obvious, at least to rational people. How on earth would we know that an employer was denying women workers birth control because he believed its use to be sinful, and not just because he wanted to save a few bucks? How would we know whether a landlord’s refusal to rent an apartment to a gay single or a same-sex couple was motivated by theology rather than by garden-variety homophobia?

This is the same problem prosecutors now face in the Trayvon Martin shooting, under the ridiculous “Stand Your Ground” law. Self-defense has always been a defense to a charge of murder—but only as part of a trial, after an initial arrest. Stand Your Ground laws are self-defense on steroids; they allow anyone to make a subjective claim that the government must initially treat as objectively true. Such a practice is simply contrary to the rule of law.

Religious liberty means that each of us has the right to believe what we wish, to follow the dictates of our consciences and theologies, and to observe the tenets of our faiths so long as we do not thereby infringe the equal rights of others or violate laws of general application (i.e., we can’t “kill a commie for Christ” as the 50s joke went). Religious liberty is not a “get out of jail free” card allowing us to deny an equal right to liberty to people we don’t like.