The fight for re­li­gious lib­erty

Jamaica Gleaner - - ARTS&EDUCATION - Ian Boyne

THE US Com­mis­sion on Civil Rights’ re­cent re­port con­tin­ues to dis­turb Chris­tians and other re­li­gious be­liev­ers who fear it will un­leash a tor­rent of re­li­gious re­pres­sion.

The chair­man of the US Catholic Bish­ops Ad Hoc Com­mit­tee on Re­li­gious Lib­erty, Arch­bishop Wil­liam Lori, is out­raged at the re­port ti­tled ‘Peace­ful Co­ex­is­tence: Rec­on­cil­ing Non-dis­crim­i­na­tion Prin­ci­ples with Civil Lib­er­ties’, which casts re­li­gious be­liev­ers as big­ots.

“Th­ese state­ments paint­ing those who sup­port re­li­gious free­dom with the broad brush of big­otry are reck­less and re­veal a pro­found dis­re­gard for re­li­gious foun­da­tions ... ,” the arch­bishop said. Sharply crit­i­cis­ing Civil Rights Com­mis­sion Chair­man Martin Cas­tro, who said re­li­gious lib­erty stands for noth­ing ex­cept “hypocrisy” for it is often a code phrase for in­tol­er­ance, racism, and ho­mo­pho­bia, among other things, the arch­bishop slammed: “Rest as­sured, if peo­ple of faith con­tinue to be marginalised, it is the poor and vul­ner­a­ble, not the chair­man and his friends, who will suf­fer.”

The com­mis­sion sat for three years and re­ceived 110 writ­ten com­ments, an “un­usu­ally large num­ber for a com­mis­sion”, it says. In­ter­est­ingly, more than 100 com­ments gen­er­ally sup­ported re­li­gious ex­emp­tions and the right of re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions and groups to di­rect their own af­fairs re­gard­less of oth­er­wise ap­pli­ca­ble laws. De­spite this, the com­mis­sion came out with a re­port that re­jected those views and oth­ers that call for greater re­stric­tions on re­li­gious lib­erty. The US Com­mis­sion on Civil Rights re­port demon­strates the power of the Amer­i­can sec­u­lar elite and its anti-demo­cratic ten­den­cies.

Dis­sent­ing voices in the re­port con­tain some tren­chant ar­gu­ments against its ma­jor­ity po­si­tion and rec­om­men­da­tions. “The sec­u­lar­ists have been the ag­gres­sors and often use the courts, cor­po­ra­tions, pub­lic of­fi­cials from other ju­ris­dic­tions, the news me­dia, and so­cial me­dia mobs to im­pose poli­cies that lack demo­cratic sup­port. Many Amer­i­cans would sim­ply like to be left alone to fol­low their tra­di­tional prac­tices re­gard­ing the pub­lic ex­pres­sion of re­li­gious sen­ti­ments but are stymied by col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween sec­u­lar­ist elites who en­force a sort of ‘heck­ler’s veto’ against the ma­jor­ity in an un­fash­ion­able com­mu­nity. Yes, the con­sti­tu­tion pro­tects the rights of mi­nori­ties, but it also pro­tects the right of the ma­jor­ity.”

The US com­mis­sion’s re­port seeks to re­strict re­li­gious ex­emp­tions to fed­eral laws that con­flict with re­li­gious be­liefs, for ex­am­ple, laws al­low­ing same-sex mar­riage, con­tra­cep­tive use (as part of Oba­macare), and abor­tion. Says the com­mis­sion: “Re­li­gious ex­emp­tions to the pro­tec­tions of civil rights ... , when they are per­mis­si­ble, sig­nif­i­cantly in­fringe upon th­ese civil rights.”

It says fur­ther and wor­ry­ingly that “re­li­gious ex­emp­tions from non-dis­crim­i­na­tion laws and poli­cies must be weighed care­fully and de­fined nar­rowly on a fact-spe­cific ba­sis. Without ex­emp­tions, groups would not use the pre­text of re­li­gious doc­trines to dis­crim­i­nate”. Now no­tice this dis­tinc­tion made by the com­mis­sion: “A doc­trine that dis­tin­guishes be­tween be­liefs (which should be pro­tected) and con­duct (which should con­form to the law) is fairer and eas­ier to ap­ply.” Do you know what that means? It means that you are free to hold your re­li­gious be­liefs in your head but not so free to act on them.

You are free to believe that same-sex mar­riage is a sin and that chil­dren should be brought up with het­ero­sex­ual par­ents, but you are not free if you run an adop­tion agency to refuse a ho­mo­sex­ual cou­ple who wants to adopt. You are free to believe that ho­mo­sex­ual cou­ples should not co­habit but not free not to rent them your house. Some would say you are free to believe that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is de­grad­ing but should not be free to deny ho­mo­sex­u­als the right to be em­ployed in your church-school, for that is dis­crim­i­na­tion on the ba­sis of sex­ual orientation.


Some are go­ing even fur­ther than that. They would take away re­li­gious peo­ple’s right to even free­dom of ex­pres­sion in op­pos­ing things that con­flict with their re­li­gious faith, like ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. I give you a spe­cific case. A de­vout Catholic cou­ple in Ver­mont, USA, had a be­dand-break­fast busi­ness. This cou­ple wanted to com­ply with their state, which ac­cepts same­sex mar­riage, so they agreed to host same-sex wed­dings but to ex­press to those get­ting mar­ried their own view that mar­riage is be­tween a man and a woman. An em­ployee of the busi­ness er­ro­neously told a same-sex cou­ple that the es­tab­lish­ment would not host their wed­ding fes­tiv­i­ties. The es­tab­lish­ment was sued.

The set­tle­ment stip­u­lated that the own­ers would no longer be al­lowed to state their views on mar­riage and that they would no longer host wed­ding re­cep­tions for any­one – gay or straight. That’s free­dom for you in Amer­ica, land of the free!

As one dis­sent­ing voice says in this same com­mis­sion re­port, “If the owner of a pub­lic ac­com­mo­da­tion is will­ing to serve peo­ple with whom he dis­agrees but is pro­hib­ited from telling them he dis­agrees with their con­duct, non-dis­crim­i­na­tion law has over­rid­den free-speech rights.” Then the dis­senter raises an ob­jec­tion and then dashes it.

But then free-speech en­e­mies smug­gle in this con­cept of ‘dig­ni­tary harm’. Crit­i­cism of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity as sin­ful and abom­inable is seen as an at­tack on a gay per­son’s dig­nity and, in­deed, his hu­man­ity and should not be al­lowed. That per­son has a right to his self-re­spect, which, as noted philoso­pher of jus­tice John Rawls would say, is partly de­pen­dent on the re­spect ac­corded by fel­low cit­i­zens. By that view, you should not have the right to preach that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is morally wrong as that harms the gay per­son emo­tion­ally and at­tacks his mo­ral worth. It at­tacks his dig­nity.

Rawls, in the most im­por­tant mod­ern philo­soph­i­cal text on the sub­ject, A The­ory of Jus­tice, says: “Our self-re­spect nor­mally de­pends upon the re­spect of oth­ers. Un­less we feel that our en­deav­ours are re­spected by them, it is dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble, for us to main­tain our con­vic­tion that our ends are worth ad­vanc­ing ... . Thus, it is a de­sir­able fea­ture of jus­tice that it should pub­licly ex­press men’s re­spect for one an­other.” This is what our pre­em­i­nent the­o­rist on jus­tice says. This is why re­li­gious peo­ple’s free­dom to sim­ply preach against ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity – not to harm or call for dis­crim­i­na­tion against gays – might be out­lawed and al­ready is be­ing se­verely pun­ished.


Just two months be­fore the Supreme Court heard oral ar­gu­ments in the case that even­tu­ally re­sulted in a rul­ing in favour of gay mar­riage, The New York Times ran a front-page story show­ing that un­like ev­ery other ma­jor case in Supreme Court history, that case at­tracted no blue-chip firms or celebrity lawyers to ar­gue against the con­sti­tu­tional claim for gay rights. They dared not do so.

The book It’s Dan­ger­ous to Believe: Re­li­gious Free­dom and Its En­e­mies, by Mary Eber­stadt, has some fright­en­ing and in­cred­i­ble in­stances of sup­pres­sion of free speech. In 2014, the CEO of Mozilla and cre­ator of JavaScript lost his job after it was re­vealed that he do­nated US$1,000 to sup­port Propo­si­tion 8, a bal­lot ini­tia­tive in Cal­i­for­nia lim­it­ing mar­riage to man and woman. He re­signed after a cy­ber-sham­ing cam­paign en­sued (so­cial me­dia is now the main arena for bul­ly­ing). A Catholic the­ol­ogy teacher from New Jer­sey was fired for post­ing state­ments on her Face­book page ex­press­ing Catholic teach­ings on same-sex mar­riage.

Other ex­am­ples are cited in the book. At an Amer­i­can univer­sity, the po­lice were called in to is­sue a dis­or­derly con­duct ci­ta­tion to a street preacher after stu­dents com­plained that his words about sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted in­fec­tions and sex of­fended them. “The City of Hous­ton is­sues sub­poe­nas or­der­ing spe­cific pas­tors to turn over any ser­mons men­tion­ing ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, gen­der iden­tity ... . ” It’s not just the US that boasts pow­er­ful en­e­mies of free speech and re­li­gious lib­erty.

In Great Bri­tain in 2015, a preacher was sent to jail for speak­ing ‘threat­en­ing’ words from the book of Leviti­cus. In Canada, the Al­berta Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion charged a for­mer Al­berta pas­tor with a ‘hate crime’ for a let­ter he sent to a lo­cal news­pa­per in 2002 crit­i­cis­ing teach­ing on sex­u­al­ity in that prov­ince’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. A Chris­tian health worker in Great Bri­tain is dis­ci­plined for ‘bul­ly­ing and ha­rass­ment’ after ask­ing a co-worker if she’d like a prayer (the co-worker said yes) and giv­ing a co-worker a book about con­ver­sion to Chris­tian­ity.

A cou­ple in Bri­tain is de­nied sta­tus as fos­ter par­ents be­cause they would not re­cant un­wanted pas­sages in the Bi­ble. A preschool teacher in Bri­tain is fired for re­fus­ing to read a book about same-sex par­ents aloud to three-year-olds.

Today, re­li­gious be­liev­ers, to­mor­row, all of us.


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