Commentary: Is religious liberty a civil right?

The Religious Freedom law passed in Indiana last month energized civil rights activists who labeled the law discriminatory. Similar laws exist in 19 states, including Virginia. Arkansas passed its version, though in the furor caused by Indiana the governor balked at signing it unless changes were made. Lost in the legal language and the sound bite back and forth of political pundits is the real question: is religious liberty a civil right?

America finds herself in a clash between sexual rights and religious freedom. A right not discovered by the courts until the latter part of the 20th century — incidentally after the 1960’s sexual revolution — it is gaining precedence over a right enshrined from America’s inception, in fact one of the very first civil rights. Therein lies the seed of conflict since only in regards to sexual expression have the courts thus far come down against religious freedom. Numerous court cases on the state and district levels, and even in the Supreme Court have upheld various freedom of religion cases.

For example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled about a year ago in a 9-0 decision that churches could not be sued for firing employees who disagreed with their doctrines. The high court has upheld the rights of abortion protesters and religiously motivated political speech. A Chicago court recently ruled 3-0 that a ministers’ housing allowance is not subject to income tax. Cases in the liberal northeast have ruled that no violation of church/state separation occurs when school children voluntarily recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Indiana case arises from instances when courts have pitted religious freedoms against sexual preference, thus blurring constitutional lines. The framers intended the courts to enforce the laws that the legislatures and the executive branch passed, thus restricting the courts to the least powerful branch of government. In one sense, at present they stand almost omnipotent, creating as it were, an alternate vision of humanity by mere fiat in regards to sexual preference and the inevitable direction that decision leads. In another, they seem like a referee, vacillating back and forth, bending to whichever side can make the most noise, thus ensuring that no decision can settle the issues.

The framers of the Constitution, while only men and hardly capable of foreseeing the changes the last hundred years have brought, surely would’ve felt those basic enshrined rights essential to a well-balanced society. While adjustments might be necessary, changes shouldn’t undermine the foundations. The challenge then is not merely one of discrimination, but ultimately of sustaining government of, by, and for the people. Preventing discrimination applies to all people — or does it? Isn’t forbidding someone a belief guaranteed by the Constitution a form of intolerance and discrimination?

Yet it seems that’s exactly what’s happening in the conflict between religious freedom and sexual rights. What some (and I emphasize some) atheists, homosexuals and civil rights activists seem to aim for is to deny religious freedom by redefining it. Rather than freedom of religion, freedom of worship is touted as what the framers intended; i.e. religious acts done in public like prayer at high school graduations versus acts done within the church or home. This redefinition allows discrimination against religious faith and is precisely how the judge in a similar case ruled. In that example, the judge ruled that a Christian business’s freedom of worship was not infringed upon by servicing a homosexual wedding because it did not extend into the home or church, thus there was no violation in the judge’s view. The redefinition from religious liberty — the public expression of faith, to freedom of worship, the private expression of faith — is evident. It remains to be seen how a culture which prides itself as tolerant can maintain that claim while working to restrict “the free exercise” of religion.

In light of the expected Supreme Court ruling on homosexual marriage, one wonders why Indiana-like laws are being passed. Could what we are seeing rise from people’s fatigue at being silenced through intimidation rather than being persuaded on the merits? The latter is a more exhausting endeavor but is more consistent with true tolerance. Properly defined tolerance demands reconciliation between religious rights and sexual rights, not merely the silencing of one or the other through the intimidation of the mob. A mistake made by Christians and other people of faith in the past is now being committed by religious opponents. You can punish someone for what they believe, you cannot extinguish that belief by force.

William Shifflett is an Edinburg resident.