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Religious Right to Deny Gays Equality

Does Religious Liberty Protect a Right to Treat Gays as Unequal?


Acceptance of gays continues to grow in America, but for many there remains a strong conviction that homosexuality is abhorrent, that gays are violating some of God’s most basic commandments for humanity, and even that the presence and acceptance of gays in America is abhorrent to God. Some conclude that the constitutional guarantee of religious liberty protects both their right to believe such things and a right to act on these beliefs. They are wrong.

Promoting vs. Preventing Harm

The most fundamental purpose of a government is to protect us from harm, especially at the hands of each other. A government which protects those committing the harm rather than those who are being harmed is no real government at all. Obviously not every possible government act can be justified on the basis of protecting us from harm, but we are looking more specifically at whether individuals harming others can justifiably be protected under “free exercise” of their religion.

The constitutional guarantee of religious liberty provides absolute protections of belief, but not absolute protections for acts. It’s true that some beliefs become almost or completely pointless without the freedom to act — for example, what good is the belief that you are forbidden to eat pork if you are legally required to eat pork every week? At the same time, though, the belief that there are gods which demand human sacrifices cannot possibly justify the sacrificial killing of others.

Although these are obviously very extreme cases, they do highlight a crucial fact: the real test about whether the freedom to engage in religiously motivated behavior will even be granted, much less protected, must depend primarily upon the degree to which that behavior harms others. The importance of this behavior to the religious believer cannot be entirely ignored, of course, but the harm to others must be treated as the primary consideration.

In recent years, however, there has been a trend in political and legal circles to treat restrictions on religiously motivated behavior as presumptively discriminatory. Instead of protecting people from harm, politicians and judges are increasingly protecting those who would commit harm. Sometimes, as for example when churches seek to ignore zoning regulations, the harm done to others is ignored or arrogantly minimized. The potential dangers of this shift should not be underestimated.

Modern Culture vs. Religious Traditions

There appear to be two things driving this trend. The first is the degree to which the Christian Right is increasingly at odds with modern culture. Many of the values and traditions which the Christian Right claims to be fundamental to both Christianity and America have been called into question or even abandoned in modern America. This threatens those who have based their identities as Americans and Christians on those values and traditions.

There is a sense that both America and Christianity are under siege from evil forces which must be defeated. If they cannot impose their traditions on others, then they hope to at least retain the ability to act as they see fit, regardless of what the broader culture thinks. Thus they seek to use the language and law of religious liberty to protect a “right” to inflict harm on others through activities like job and healthcare discrimination.

The second driving force is the long-standing assumption that religion — and especially Christianity — is a necessary good both for individuals and for society as a whole. This inclines people against criticizing or restricting religiously-motivated beliefs and actions. If religion is ultimately a force for good, then both potential and actual harms can be minimized or dismissed as not being very important in the grand scheme of things.

Harm of Religiously Motivated Beliefs

All sorts of mischief can thus be justified in the name of religious liberty. Churches can ignore zoning regulations and destroy a residential neighborhood. Prelates can hide records of clerical sexual abuse and administrative cover-ups. Gays, so it is argued, can be denied protection under anti-discrimination laws when it comes to hiring, firing, renting apartments, etc.

People’s right to “free exercise” of their religion does not and cannot protect any and all religiously-motivated acts. The most reasonable standard is to ask whether the acts harm others; if so, the acts should probably be disallowed. It may be true that gays could try to find another job or apartment; those aspiring to discriminate, however, could themselves find an occupation where they aren’t put in a position where they must choose between religiously-motivated discrimination and following the law.

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