It’s possible the “religious liberty” campaign is about to hit a big speed bump tomorrow if AZ Gov. Jan Brewer listens to business leaders and even some of the Republican legislators who voted for a religious exemption bill and vetoes it. But it’s beginning to dawn on a lot of people that the very idea of letting religious “conscience” carve out big and self-defined exemptions from obedience to the law sets quite the dangerous precedence.
The Prospect‘s Paul Waldman sums it up nicely today:
Any Christians who want to can believe that gay people are sinful and wicked, or that gay marriage is a terrible thing. What they can’t do is use those beliefs as a get-out-of-jail-free card that gives them permission to break the law or escape civil liability when they harm other people.
Up until now, the distinction between religious practice and the things religious people do when they enter the secular world has worked pretty well. Anti-discrimination laws don’t mean that a rabbi has to conduct a wedding for two Baptists. Religious organizations can hire only people of their own faith. But once you enter into other realms, like commerce, you have to obey the laws that govern those realms.
If we grant religious people the kind of elevated citizenship conservatives are now demanding, where the special consideration given to religious practice is extended to anything a religious person does, the results could be truly staggering. Why stop at commerce? If things like employment law and anti-discrimination laws don’t apply to religious people, what about zoning laws, or laws on domestic abuse, or laws in any other realm?
As I often do, I’d add another observation from the point of view of a religious believer: how strong is a faith that requires this kind of state sanction, and this sort of freedom to discriminate? Did Martin Luther King claim a “religious exemption” from Jim Crow? Did the Christian Martyrs over the centuries whine about having to “render unto Caesar” or suffer the consequences? Religious believers, including Christian conservatives, are entirely free to “act on their faith” in public advocacy for any position they choose. But demanding a separate set of laws to avoid offense to their tender consciences–again, as defined by any individual claiming this privilege–conflates “religious liberty” with a peculiar weakness in faith I’d be ashamed to admit.