“Religious Liberty” and the Damage Done

In the continuing saga over “religious liberty” laws and exemptions, one of the persistent mysteries involves the specific fears proponents harbor. After all, opponents are able to cite a pretty easy-to-understand and highly sympathetic concern: being denied a job, a meal, a service, simple respect, for who they are. What is the counterpart, and if it’s the “baker of conscience” who doesn’t want to prepare a cake for a same-sex wedding, is that really a heavy burden to bear?

At the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters, who is sympathetic to “religious liberty” concerns, cuts through the rhetoric and asks that very question of the bishops who have harnessed the Catholic Church to this dubious cause:

[W]hatever the bakers do, and whatever the legislators do, the teachers of our Church, our bishops, would do well to point out that there is nothing wrong with baking a cake for anybody for almost any occasion. Similarly, someone should tell the Little Sisters of the Poor that their conscience should not be troubled by filling out a form that exempts them from having to provide contraception coverage to their employees. Instead, we have bishops who suggest same sex marriage is a civilizational threat, which it is not, and who encourage the Little Sisters to think that signing a form is material cooperation with evil. This is what the lawyers say. The bishops should stop listening to the lawyers and begin distancing themselves from a public fight that has harmed the cause of religious liberty instead of helped it. If they don’t, they have no one to blame but themselves.

And that gets back to the real motive behind much of the “religious liberty” crusade: an effort to depict religious conservatives as an embattled but righteous remnant engulfed in a self-destructing society, and wishing only to be left alone to their own beliefs and customs. But the definition of “left alone” inevitably involves friction with social norms, which politicians promoting this meme wish to exacerbate, not mitigate. And so the alleged “shield” of religious liberty protections becomes a “sword” for eroding civil liberties for others. It is impossible, ultimately, to ignore the precedent set in the fight for civil rights for African-Americans, where opponents also retreated to a position of “simply” demanding the right for private parties to live their lives and conduct their businesses according to “custom.” Here’s how People for the American Way recently put it:

Fifty years ago, Americans decided that a private business owner who serves the public can be required to abide by laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Since then, many states and municipalities have added prohibitions on discrimination based on other characteristics like disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity. It is those laws that some religious conservatives are objecting to, arguing that they should be free to refuse to provide services to same-sex couples even when states have decided as a matter of public policy to ban anti-gay discrimination.

Many religious conservatives object to the civil rights model for looking at this issue on grounds that sexual orientation is a matter of “choice,” not nature, a position that fewer and fewer people accept the more they get to know LGBT folk. But at bottom, their scriptural objections to homosexuality are no stronger than the scriptural objections to racial integration cited so often in defense of Jim Crow. And like them, the current efforts to identify Christianity with homophobia will look ludicrous and shameful in a generation or less. So when we are told these poor innocent conservative religious folk “just” want their consciences respected, and that means a zone of sanctioned discrimination must be created for them, the proper answer isn’t to dismiss religious liberty as a legitimate concern, but instead to ask: does your liberty really require a right to discriminate, and to disobey laws others must obey? It’s the self-definition of the right to discriminate that’s so dangerous here, and so tempting to bigots.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.