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Freedom of Religion is Not Freedom to Discriminate

Nate LaPointe, Featured Writer

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As Americans, we like to think of our country as a bastion of freedom, spreading democracy and liberty all around the globe, fighting for the rights of all people. After all, we pledge our allegiance to a republic ‘with liberty and justice for all’. As an American, there’s a lot to like about this perception our country, but it’s not really the truth. It ignores the fact that the US still has its own problems with racial and religious prejudice and discrimination, and throughout America’s history, there hasn’t been ‘liberty and justice for all.’ In the last twenty years, the gay rights movement and the reaction to it have become the focus of the civil rights and religious freedom debates in our county. This conflict puts a founding principle of our country at risk, and it has the potential to affect the the life of every American.

For one particularly egregious example of prejudice, we can go to Texas in 2015, where a former police employee, James Miller, murdered his neighbor by stabbing him twice. Earlier this year, a jury found him guilty of neither murder nor manslaughter, just of criminally negligent homicide. He will go to jail for only six months, do some community service, and pay restitution to his victim’s family. It’s worth restating: this was his punishment for murder. His sentence was so light because he used the “gay panic” defense, in which the murderer essentially argues: “It was self-defense! It’s not my fault I stabbed him, he tried to kiss me!”, or in other words “I’m not guilty of a crime, the guy I murdered was gay!” This is an actual legal defense, and it worked in this man’s case.

You might be thinking that that’s just one example, and that this case is an outlier. It’s true that the gay panic defense is rare, but prejudice against gay people is not. Look at Rowan County, Kentucky, after same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide in 2015. The county clerk, Kim Davis, refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, claiming that doing so would violate her religious beliefs. After a legal battle, a federal court ruled that she had to act in accordance with the US Constitution. She ignored the ruling, claiming that she was acting “under God’s authority.” She was found in contempt of court and spent five days in jail. She was released after promising that she would not interfere with the deputy clerks issuing marriage licenses. On the day the clerk’s office began issuing licenses, thousands of her supporters rallied outside, demanding that the deputy clerks resign or be fired. This was just two and a half years ago. Kim Davis still holds the office of county clerk, and ironically is running for reelection this year against one of the men to whom she denied a marriage license.

I know that these two examples on their own might not be enough to convince everyone, but discrimination goes beyond headlines, and into the fabric of our society. For instance, 14 states had laws that made gay sex a crime until 2003, when the Supreme Court ruled such laws were unconstitutional. The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act, which makes crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation hate crimes was not passed until 2009, 11 years after the death of the man it’s named after. Matthew Shepard was a gay college student who was brutally tortured and killed in 1998. An anti-gay hate group, the Westboro Baptist “Church” picketed at his funeral, holding signs that said “Matt in Hell”. These people who claim to stand for righteousness and “family values” thought that it was not just acceptable, but their duty to disrupt his funeral with their hateful message and cause more pain for his family. Their behavior is extreme and has become rarer in recent years, but that doesn’t mean that prejudice and discrimination are gone.

There is a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation only in hiring for positions in the federal government. Anti-discrimination laws vary extremely between states. Less than half of the states have laws against discrimination in hiring, and 18 have no protections in employment at all. In 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission concluded that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act applies to LGBT individuals, which is undoubtedly a step forward, but it’s not permanent. In July 2017, the Justice Department reversed the position it held under the Obama administration and filed a brief in a federal court claiming that civil rights laws do not prohibit job discrimination based on sexual orientation. We have been moving forward, but now all of the progress we’ve made is in danger, not just legally, but in public opinion as well. A survey released in January found that while the number of Americans who support equal rights for LGBT Americans remained at 79 percent, the number of people who are uncomfortable with their neighbors being LGBT has risen for the first time since 2014. For many people, marriage equality in 2015 was the end of the fight; they thought that equality had been achieved, but that’s not the case. Those of us who believe in equality need to realize that almost all of the achievements we’ve made in the last few years have been through the courts, and that they can be overturned.

Much of the opposition to LGBT rights comes from groups on the religious right. These groups are very influential in conservative politics, and they are the force behind the passage of “Religious Freedom Restoration” laws. Religious freedom sounds great, doesn’t it? Of course it does, that’s why these laws are called that instead of “we don’t like gay people so we’re going to make it easy to discriminate against them” laws. These laws allow religious people to deny services to LGBT individuals if they feel that it would violate their religion. If this doesn’t immediately strike you as unconstitutional, why don’t we compare two headlines? “Colorado baker refuses to serve interracial couple, says doing so would violate his religion.” This is clearly illegal discrimination, right? Of course it is. In the 1960s, some Christian universities used this defense in an attempt to remain segregated. Courts ruled against them and they were forced to obey the law. How about this headline: “Colorado baker refuses to serve same-sex couple, says doing so would violate his religion.” Isn’t this also discrimination? It is ”prejudicial treatment of different categories of people”, the literal definition of discrimination. It’s a testament to America’s continuing discomfort towards gay people and to the prevalence of religion in American political life that some people can read both headlines and think only one is discrimination.

To be clear, the second headline is real, and it’s a lawsuit going before the Supreme Court this year (Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission). For some reason, some people think that forcing the baker in question to obey anti-discrimination law will force him to violate his faith, which makes it a First Amendment issue. The First Amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The First Amendment, and how it applies to religion has been hotly contested for decades. The Supreme Court has clarified the issue, at least somewhat, and has ruled in the past that: “The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the first amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the federal government … can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.” (Justice Hugo Black, writing after Everson v. Board of Education). Because the first amendment defense failed for religious universities in the 60s, I am hopeful that we can be celebrating a victory for LGBT rights and a step towards “liberty and justice for all” this fall.

When thinking about this case, I keep returning to a key point: If the court rules that religious people with objections to the idea of homosexuality can ignore anti-discrimination law, then why can’t people with religious objections to anything sue to have the ability to ignore the law? If I formed the church of West Springfield and claimed that I had religious objections to homework, wouldn’t I have grounds to sue and not have to do homework? What if those old cases about racial discrimination were filed again, citing the new precedent? We shouldn’t underestimate how devastating this case could be. It has the potential to put religion above the law, and to undermine every civil rights law ever passed. That will be a disaster for this country.

One of the founding principles of the United States is secularism. The Constitution doesn’t say that our government gets its power from God, it says that we get it from the people, a fundamental Enlightenment idea and a break from a thousand- year-old tradition. In the United States, your religious beliefs do not put you above the law, nor should they. Gay rights activists have nothing against the free practice of religion, but we are against discrimination. We understand wanting to live according to your beliefs, but we can’t pretend to sympathize or remain silent if those beliefs include discriminating against people simply because they want to marry the person they love. If we want to live up to the ideals of our country, to actually protect liberty and justice for all, then we have to ensure that an individual’s religion never puts them above the law.

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Freedom of Religion is Not Freedom to Discriminate