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Religious Beliefs & Religious Acts: Religously Motivated Discrimination

Is Illegal Discrimination OK if Motivated by Sincere Religious Beliefs?


Conservative Christians are failing to convince enough people that homosexuality is abhorrent enough to justify restricting gays’ civil liberties. Their new tactic is to argue that substantively recognizing the equality of gays would require violating the First Amendment. Christians’ belief in God’s condemnation of homosexuality is claimed to be so important that forcing them to treat gays equally means forcing them to violate their religious beliefs.

The idea that there is a conflict between protecting gays’ equal civil rights and protecting Christians’ religious liberty is often compared to past Christian claims about the religious foundations of racism. Many dispute the analogy between race and homosexuality because homosexuality is a “choice” or “lifestyle” whereas race is not. Let's consider other analogies...

Dietary Restrictions

Christianity doesn’t have dietary restrictions, but they are common in other religions. Judaism and Islam, both of which are theologically close to Christianity, prohibit adherents from eating pork for example. Such restrictions are normally taken seriously by devout believers and often constitute serious religious doctrines for them, mandating behaviors which help distinguish them from others in society.

Would it be justified for believers to discriminate against those who refuse to abide by such dietary restrictions? Would be be legal to refuse to hire, rent to, or serve people who eat pork? What if they are adherents of the religion in question who don’t agree on the importance of these restrictions? Of course such discrimination wouldn’t be permitted. Regardless of how important such restrictions are to a religious believer, the state’s interest in protecting the equality of all citizens is far greater than in protecting some peoples’ beliefs about how they should treat those who don’t abide by all their religious rules.

Religion vs. Religion

Discrimination related to religious dietary restrictions isn’t very likely, but what about discrimination due to following the “wrong” religion? It’s more plausible that someone might not want an adherent from a very different religion to have a position of power and influence over children, for example, or even to simply be around. Discrimination against someone for being a Satanist, or even a Hindu, isn’t far-fetched.

Just as some don’t want a lesbian teaching their children or a gay man serving as a scout leader, some many not want a Satanist teaching in public school or a Hindu as scout leader. Not wanting children to be “influenced” by a homosexual is no less important to some than not wanting them to be “influenced” by a Satanist or a polytheist. The state's interest in protecting a person against religious discrimination is greater than the state's interest in protecting the "right" of a person to discriminate against a person because of their religion.

Gender Roles

In America, at least, religiously motivated discrimination against women is more likely than such discrimination on the basis of eating the wrong things or following the wrong religion. Not only is belief in divinely mandated differences in gender roles common, but so is the effort to promote such distinctions in law, politics, and culture. Given also how closely connected these beliefs are to the attitudes towards gays, this analogy is strong.

Can an employer refuse to promote a woman to manager due to the religiously motivated belief that women should not have authority over men and, moreover, that she should be home taking care of the house? What if he refuses to hire a young mother or to give maternity leave to a man due to the religiously motivated belief that women are responsible for raising and nurturing children? Could he pay men more than women because of the belief that men are supposed to be the breadwinners?

No. In such cases, a person is not only prevented from acting on their religious beliefs, they are in fact forced by law to act contrary to their religious beliefs. No court would accept as a valid justification for exemptions from generally applicable anti-discrimination laws the claim that one has a First Amendment right to discriminate. Regardless of how deeply felt the belief is that God has decreed different social roles for men and women, the fact remains that acting on such beliefs harms others.

It is the harm to others upon which courts must focus — government exists to protect people from harm, not to protect the ability of some to harm others because they think God tells them to. People have a right to believe that homosexuality is abhorrent, but they don’t have a constitutional right to act on that belief if their acts cause harm. This is why protecting the equal civil rights of gays is no more a threat to religious liberties than is protecting the equal civil rights of women, Satanists, and pork-eaters.

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