Recent events involving how the world’s two most dominant religions, Christianity and Islam, treat gay people have brought the question of religious freedom to the forefront. Christians in the United States have been in the news lately for denying service to gays, most notably some bakeries, a pizza place, and an auto mechanic. In the Muslim world in some places gays are being murdered simply for being gay, such as in Iraq in lands controlled by the terror group ISIS. In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the death penalty for homosexuality is sometimes applied, and is an accepted part of the law. In lieu of the death penalty, other harsh punishments can be involved. These intolerant behaviors are usually defended against critics by making claims to the need for religious freedom, the ability to exercise one’s belief, and the requirement that we tolerate religious belief. Ironically, we are asked to tolerate what I view as intolerance. These situations raise a host of questions, which I will try to sum up briefly: Should religious people be free to exercise their beliefs? When does that exercise of religious belief negatively impact others, and how should the law be applied to exercises of those beliefs? Where do we draw the line?
The notion that religious people should be free to exercise their beliefs and practice their religion without interference is a founding principle found in the United States Constitution. This concept, however, does not always apply, especially when the exercise of those beliefs interferes with the rights of other. There is plenty of precedent for this. The most striking example is with the issue of slavery. Before the Civil War, and in response to the growing abolitionist movement, many Southern clergy took to defending slavery as an essentially Biblical and Christian practice. Abolitionists countered with the idea the slavery was not only a violation of the faith but also a violation of man’s fundamental rights, as laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The primary religious arguments, however, came from the South. A war was fought over this argument, and with many, a secular argument for human rights was promoted as an answer to Southern claims that divine providence was on their side. At this time the country was still extremely religious, so both sides claimed God, but it was the North that promoted the idea that the exercise of religious belief has limits, calling for a natural, not necessarily Christian right to freedom for all people.
From the end of the Civil War on, at least in the United States, the line was drawn in the sense that if one’s beliefs infringed on someone else’s rights, those beliefs could not and should not be enforced as law. When someone’s exercise of their religion harms another individual, it is infringing on their rights, and is therefore not valid in a free society. The concept of equal protection under the law, which was enshrined in the Constitution with the 14th Amendment banning slavery was created to apply this concept to the law. This legal construct is very relevant in the United States today with various groups of Christians attempting to refuse service to gays. At what point does this behavior violate someone else’s rights? Perhaps a Christian bakery or a pizza place denying someone service doesn’t seem like a big deal, after all a gay customer can always go somewhere else. But what happens when a Christian grocer who is the only business in town decides to refuse service to gays? What happens if a Christian paramedic who is first to the scene of an accident refuses to do CPR because the person needing treatment is gay? What if a Christian doctor refuses to perform surgery? As you can see, this exercise of religious “freedom” gets out of hand quickly. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine these scenarios, especially when you think about how other countries can punish being gay with death.
Equal protection is essential here. Public-facing businesses are not allowed to discriminate on any basis according to US law. If the law does not apply equally to all people everywhere, it is unjust and meaningless. The law will ultimately not be respected in that context. Clearly, the right to practice one’s religion should be protected so long as it does not infringe on the rights of another. If a conservative Christian church does not want to hire gay employees, while I disagree with it personally, it should probably be allowed (there are a lot of side issues with this I don’t have time to get into). However, I do not believe that any public facing business or public institution should be allowed to refuse service to anyone, and the United States Civil Rights Act of 1964 agrees with me. I would say the majority of the population agrees with me. Claims that I must tolerate someone’s religion so that they are free to practice intolerance towards others is blatantly hypocritical and wrong. If we set down a path of legalized bigotry and intolerance towards a minority population, nothing good can come from it, who knows where it could lead.
Perhaps a Saudi Arabian ruler coming under criticism for their violent persecution of gays might say, “but you must respect my religion!” I submit that I do not need to respect any belief system that persecutes or does harm to someone simply for being different. Violence as an expression of religious belief is never justified. I believe that organized discrimination can lead to violence, and there are countless examples of that throughout history.
Rights matter, and because of this we have to get with the idea that religious freedom has limits. Everyone has the same rights, and no one has the right to infringe on the ability of another person to live their life in peace.