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“Advancing A Political Agenda”: When Freedom Of Religion Becomes A Sword, Not A Shield

Growing up, I went to a small school in Boston that was affiliated with the church across the street. The headmaster was Father Day. We went to services, the school had a great arts program and I loved my classmates. But what I remember most about it was that it was a warm and loving place to learn and grow.

Years later, I went to an historically Jewish university. Worship wasn’t part of the curriculum, but at some level, religion was knitted into every nook and cranny. I had the time of my life. It was a great place to be.

Those two experiences reflect my mixed religious lineage. I’m not sure what you’d call me today, but it’s the background I come from when thinking about the religious controversies that have been making headlines of late.

If you’re like me, freedom of religion feels something like this: It’s the right to believe, to express your belief without fear of reprisal, and to worship in accordance with your beliefs. It’s one of our country’s most fundamental rights, and it should be. No one should be able to tell you what you can and can’t believe, and no one should penalize you for your beliefs.

So the freedom of religion cases that feel the most intuitive are those in which someone’s ability to express their religious faith has been compromised. The Sikh who is told he can’t wear his turban at work. The orthodox Jew told to work on Saturday or lose his job. These kinds of cases feel immediately unjust: Unless your religious beliefs somehow irredeemably impair your ability to complete your duties, what business is it of your employer to tell you how you can or cannot live out your faith?

In other words, in these cases, the freedom of religion acts as a protection, a shield rather than a sword. That helps explain something else that feels right about cases like the ones just mentioned, at least in terms of how we understand them on a gut level: In each one, its the more powerful employer who is trying to impose its will on the less powerful employee who is only trying to exercise his or her faith. In other words, the person in need of protection is the one finding protection in the Constitution.

That feels very different from how some of the more recent controversies surrounding the freedom of religion have been playing out. Take the Arizona bill that would have allowed businesses to deny service to homosexuals. The argument for it was: If I own a business I ought to be able to operate it in a way that accords with my most fundamental beliefs (and if I think homosexuality is wrong, I shouldn’t have to serve homosexuals). But here the power dynamic was different. This wasn’t a case where a person being discriminated against cited the Constitution as evidence that the discrimination was impermissible. Instead, it was the opposite: a case where the person who wanted to do the discriminating sought justification in the Constitution.

In the Hobby Lobby case that was before the Supreme Court this week, the power dynamics are similarly flipped. Here, it isn’t a case of an employee charging that a much larger corporation is forcing him or her to choose between livelihood or beliefs. Instead, it’s the corporation that’s saying its religious beliefs have been compromised, and that the remedy is to withdraw a benefit offered to its (less powerful) employees.

In other words, here the freedom of religion is being used as a sword, not a shield. I’m not asking you to protect my right to believe what I want, I’m asking you to take something away from someone else on the basis of my belief. That’s a different kind of thing. And it doesn’t feel right.

There are other themes that factor into these kinds of controversies, of course. On the one hand, there are those who see the most powerful actor in these disputes as the government, and its efforts to compel people to behave in ways they would rather not. On the other, there are people like me, who see the claim of religious liberty being deployed by some as a way to advance a political agenda that really may not have all that much to do with religion.

But look, I’m one of those people who believes that when it comes to religion we ought to spend a lot more time listening to each other and a lot less time being knee jerk, because for many of us faith is so personal and important. Different people will feel differently about what their faith means, how it is expressed and how it may be impinged upon. And in my experience, when we assume we know someone else based entirely on their religious faith, or the lack thereof, more often than not we’re wrong.

But here’s something I’m pretty sure about, too: While everyone is entitled to their freedom of religion, we don’t honor that freedom when instead of using it to protect you from discrimination on the basis of what you believe, we use it to justify discrimination against others on the basis of who they are or what they believe. And that’s true no matter how uncomfortable you may find their beliefs, or the expression of it, to be.


By: Anson Kaye, U. S. News and World Report, March 27, 2014

March 31, 2014 - Posted by | Hobby Lobby, Religious Liberty | , , , , , ,

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