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Justifying Discrimination in the Name of Religious Freedom is Not a Good Idea

photo: bastique via Flickr

photo: bastique via Flickr

Evangelicals like Chuck Colson, Roman Catholics like Archbishop Donald Wuerl, and the other religious leaders who signed the “Manhattan Declaration” don’t seem to understand that justifying discrimination in the name of religious freedom is not a good idea.

For example, Wuerl and the DC city council are at loggerheads over a new non-discrimination bill. As Wuerl correctly describes it,

Under the bill, religious organizations would be exempt from participating in ceremonies or from teaching about same-sex marriage in religion classes and retreats in accord with their faith beliefs, but they would be required to recognize and promote same-sex marriage everywhere else, including in employment policies, and adoption and foster-care policies, against their beliefs.

Shorter Wuerl: “God forbid that same sex couples be allowed to adopt children, or care for them as foster parents, or have health benefits through their legal partner’s employment. We certainly won’t be a party to such immorality.”

Archbishop, if the government offers grants to provide housing for low-income people that have strings attached that you disagree with, such as prohibiting discrimination against certain family arrangements, don’t apply for the grant. It’s that simple. No one is holding a gun to your head, saying “take this money or else.”

This isn’t about religious freedom — it’s about churches asking for special rights: the right to legally discriminate in workplace practices and the right to legally discriminate in the delivery of publicly funded social services.

As a Christian and a pastor, seeing the signers of the Manhattan Declaration trying to justify discrimination on the basis of the Christian faith makes me sick. In the mid-20th century, the Dutch Reformed Church justified apartheid in South Africa on religious grounds, much to their shame today. At the same time in the US, southern evangelicals were doing the same in their defense of Jim Crow. Now we see the leaders of today’s American evangelicals and Roman Catholics following this same path with regard to gays and lesbians.

When the US Supreme Court ruled in Loving v Virginia that laws banning interracial marriages were unconstitutional, that didn’t force religious groups to conduct marriages of mixed race couples. It did, however, require them to treat such couples as legally married in the eyes of the state. As Iowa Supreme Court Justice Mark Cady wrote in Varnum v Brien last April [pdf],

A religious denomination can still define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and a marriage ceremony performed by a minister, priest, rabbi, or other person ordained or designated as a leader of the person’s religious faith does not lose its meaning as a sacrament or other religious institution. The sanctity of all religious marriages celebrated in the future will have the same meaning as those celebrated in the past. The only difference is civil marriage will now take on a new meaning that reflects a more complete understanding of equal protection of the law. This result is what our [Iowa state] constitution requires.

Cady wrote a unanimous court decision for the state of Iowa, but his words explain why anti-discrimination laws do not conflict with religious freedom.

Colson, Wuerl, and their co-signers may be Christians, but the statement they released hardly speaks for all who claim the name of Christ. In their statement they say

We recognize the duty to comply with laws whether we happen to like them or not, unless the laws are gravely unjust or require those subject to them to do something unjust or otherwise immoral.

Which practices, I wonder, are gravely unjust? Hypothetically speaking, how about an evangelical housing agency refusing to give the same-sex partner of one of their employee’s health insurance in the same way that the partners of other employees are covered? What about a catholic hospital or nursing home that refuses to allow a legally married same sex partner the power to make decisions on behalf of their incapacitated spouse?

Hmmm . . . religious leaders proudly passing by the victims of injustice. Why does this sound familiar?

Oh, yes, now I remember.

Maybe these folks need to read their Bibles a little more thoroughly, before parading their love of discrimination in public. The rest of us who call ourselves Christian sure would appreciate it, as would those of any religious tradition (or no religious tradition at all) who work for justice.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.