Saturday, January 24, 2015

The New Right's Religious Freedom

State and local governments do yeoman work to diversify the economy and bring jobs to Wyoming. Then the legislature comes to town.

It never fails. They can’t help themselves. Every year at least one says something that finds its way into the national media, making us look to the world as a bunch of intolerant, backwater bigots. This year it’s “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

The Orwellian title is designed to make us think that someone has taken someone else’s religious rights when the bill is designed to take the civil rights of minorities.

It’s gone viral on the Internet. reported, “Restaurant owners could refuse to serve gay people, African-Americans, or non-Christians and they can get away with it by simply claiming that their “religious liberty” gives them the right to do so. A doctor could refuse to perform an abortion procedure to save a woman’s life. A pharmacist could refuse to sell contraception to women. Employers could fire and refuse to hire gay people. Simply put, public and private citizens can basically discriminate against gay people and anyone else they consider inferior at will. And they can do this just by playing the religious liberty card.”

What employer will eagerly associate their corporate brand or send employees to a place where they’ll be vulnerable to lawmakers who don’t value them as human beings?

Sponsor Nathan Winters, a pastor with a rather odd sense of the Gospel, can’t articulate the problem his bill “solves” except for saving ministers from being compelled to officiate at a same-sex wedding. That’s what the lofty ideal “religious freedom,” has come to mean.

The law isn’t necessary. No one can force pastors to officiate at gay marriages any more than someone can force them to love their neighbor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the captives, or give drink to the thirsty. Pastors choosing not to minister to people are protected under existing law.

Rev-Rep. Winter’s bill defines “exercise of religion” as “the practice or observance of religion, including an act or refusal to act, that is substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious belief, whether or not compelled by or central to a system of religious belief.”

A science teacher who believes the earth is only 6000 years old has a “sincerely held” religious belief. If this bill passes, so will students who don’t learn science.

Worse, “sincerely held” belief doesn’t have to be “central to a system of religious belief.” The bill has homosexuals in its crosshairs. The sponsors fantasize county clerks will be able to refuse issuing gay-marriage licenses.

If legislators think this is their ingenious way to short-circuit federal court interpretations of the Constitution’s equal protection clause, they should remember how that worked for their Southern counterparts in the 60s. They too thought state law could trump progress toward equal rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Like Rev-Rep. Winters, they misled themselves and their constituents.

There’s more to this than protecting bakers who won’t make wedding cakes for gay couples. Think about it. To avoid government rules, one need have only a “sincerely-held religious belief” and that “belief need no be connected to any “central system of religious belief.”

If I claim a “sincere” belief outside of a “central system of religious belief” that the use of LSD, meth, peyote, or other hallucinogenic drugs opens my mind to the presence of the deity, the bill gives me a “Get-out-of-jail-free” card.

Doctors whose beliefs about infidels are out of the religious mainstream, may refuse to treat people of other faiths in the ER? Before you say, “There are professional rules against that” you should know the bill nullifies those rules.

What about an hotelier who adheres to a bigoted, but sincerely held “religious” view who denies rooms to interracial couples, Jews, or fill-in-the-blank? Law enforcement officers or judges with “sincerely held” off beat religious beliefs may impose Sharia Law.

This bill is as dangerous as it is unnecessary. It’s also another cause for embarrassment around the country.