Tag Archives: Special Rights

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.