Saturday, March 01, 2014

Freedom from Religio-Politics

By Gary Berg-Cross

The recent dust up on Arizona’s SB 1062 provides some opportunity to discuss the idea Freedom and the phrase Freedom of Religion. But of course in most circles this isn't an intellectual opportunity as much as one framed by political and ideological differences that generate mind-numbing emotions. There is obviously a long history and associated philosophy to these terms, but increasingly there is political and legal context to them.  Conversations quickly get a bit complex and discussion gets muddled as we jump from a word sense to the history of the concept (The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, authored by Thomas Jefferson) to a philosophical perspective and then to an ensnaring political view.

As reported early in the debate SB 1062   expands Arizona's earlier (1999) "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" (RFRA). That law was applied with this idea of Religious Freedom - when the "victim" of religious discrimination is either an individual, a religious assembly or a religious institution. SB 1062 would have added businesses to the list of “victims” and thus to its “protection”. But what was really allowed by the law? Sure we heard loud claims of religious rights violation when a restaurant refused to serve a gay man, and was then sued for discrimination by the man. Under existing RFRA law they could be sued. Under SB 1062, they could not. 

The arguments was that this right to refuse service is a religious freedom. But other’s point out that “Religion” is what you BELIEVE not what you impose on other people. You are free to believe in all sorts of things, but a person's religious belief,s which may be tribal and certainly emotion-laden, stop at the boundary of the next person. My beliefs should not impose a burden on others.  And they should not be imposed in the secular marketplace for society’s transactions take place.  They can be practiced in Mosques, Temples and Churches etc. but not intrude into the secular space.

The problem is that if they overflow from the personal and the temples, we can ask the old question of “where does belief imposition stop?” As a theoretical question we can ask if some employer with a fundamentalist view deny employee coverage of the treatment of cancer because they would inadvertently be using something based on stem cells?

Or we can ask if  the 
'Hijab is a fundamental human right of female Muslims since it is part of religious belief.  Can a store owner, with particular preconceived biases insist that any female who enters the stored wear one? Does a Jehovah's Witness owner who won’t employ blood transfusions get to say to an employee policy that pays for blood transfusions violates their faith and hence their fundamental freedom?

Historically we've stayed away from such Big Brother religions since they violate other values such as rights to privacy, private decisions and human dignity. In the 19th century, for example, the idea of American exceptionalism was undeerstood an assembly of special American social features.  We were a relatively free Republic based on democratic ideals and personal liberty, but also freedom from religious control.  As part of the separation idea we didn’t/don’t grant religious institutions the right to muscle into secular culture and mold it to the Procrustean bed of their preconceived ideas of society. Separating the state from religion should mean that there are no additional laws that people with religious beliefs levy upon others.  There is precedent here. We protect children from parents who won’t allow medical treatment for religious reasons. Of course, with things like abortion conservatives have argued that they are protecting a child-like unborn. Cathi Herrod, the president of the Center for Arizona Policy, the conservative Christian group that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and pushed SB 1062, claims that the bill is:
 "simply about protecting religious liberty and nothing else".

I'm not alone in distrusting the claim. I worry that SB 1062 was not innocently about faith or religious freedom. Rather it and similar efforts, is about political and ideological wedges and precedents. It uses a poorly formulated idea that provides a guise of preserving religious freedom.  What the advocates and activists behind it really want is some social action. In this case making discrimination against gays and the LGBT community legal.

To me it seems that we can keep religious freedom as a fundamental right, but not let it be invoked to harm others. In a proper setting we can have an informed discussion of terms like Freedom, and Freedom of Religion but behind this is a social struggle with a emotional engine driven by a hybrid of politics and religion. It helps to remember legal precedents defining the fine balance between the freedom to exercise one's religion and the civil rights of others.

Stop Squirming:
Open :


Gary Berg-Cross said...

One might add to this discussion that "liberty as manifested in personal religious freedom is not license."

Anonymous said...

Excellent column, Gary. The Religious Right and other bigots like to cloak their depredations with high-sounding terms like "religious freedom". That's why humanist leaders Ed Ericson and Sherwin Wine created Americans for Religious Liberty in 1982, to allow people of varied lifestances or religions to come together to defend a broad, common sense definition of church-state separation. ARL has now produced 126 issues of its journal Voice of reason over the past 32 yeara, all of them our website
Edd Doerr