Close Reading: MT House rejects religious freedom bill on 50-50 vote

Montana Rep. Carl Glimm (R–Kila), his family, and their ideological clarity

Montana Rep. Carl Glimm (R–Kila), his family, and their certainty

Last Thursday, Indiana passed a bill authorizing business owners to refuse service to gays and lesbians based on sincerely held religious beliefs. The state immediately became a laughingstock. I guess laughingstock is the wrong word for this civil rights issue; Indiana became a cryingstock, or maybe just a boycottingstock. Regardless, it was a disaster. The very next day, the Montana House took up its own religious freedom bill, sponsored by Rep. Carl Glimm (R–Kila.) That bill failed on a 50-50 vote, after a contentious debate that saw Glimm brandishing his camouflage Bible on the House floor. He also said this:

[The U.S. Constitution] is the word of God, and the First Amendment says I have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.

Literally no part of the sentence is true, and yet it tells us so much. Close reading after the jump.

First of all, I bet Carl Glimm is a really nice guy when he’s not sponsoring a bill to let pharmacists refuse prescriptions for birth control. That was one of his positive examples of what Christians in Montana could do after we passed his bill, which also would have allowed public employees to refuse marriage licenses to gay couples. Anyway, Glimm is kind and loving, as evidenced by the many pictures of him with his family and animals he has shot, but in re: the US Constitution he is a complete asshole.

The Constitution is definitely not the word of God. Some guys in Philadelphia wrote it. Unlike in other situations where the author of a historical document is unclear—Moses goes up the hill where no one can see him; Moses comes down the hill with stone tablets written by God—the Constitution was drafted before dozens of witnesses. There was actually a long debate over what would be in there, with minutes and everything. At no point did it just appear amid a crash of trumpets, nor did Thomas Jefferson fall into convulsions and dictate the whole thing backwards.

One reason you know the US Constitution is not the word of God is that it has changed so many times. Pretty much the first thing we did with the Constitution was amend it, which is not usually necessary in the first ten years of a divinely-bestowed text. This brings us to the second part of Glimm’s statement, that the Constitution “says I have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.” Presumably he is referring to the First Amendment, which actually says this:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

You can argue that “no law…prohibiting the free exercise” of religion means “freedom of religion,” but you’re only substituting vague terms for specific ones. There’s a whole body of American jurisprudence parsing this sentence, and “freedom of religion, not freedom from religion” doesn’t quite capture it.

Glimm’s interpretation seems to be that people are allowed to do anything with religion but escape from it. As we’ve discussed before, that elevates religion to a kind of super-reason—one that trumps any other argument in discourse and supercedes any law in society. In general, reason prohibits us from claiming things without evidence, and the law prohibits us from doing certain things regardless of our motives. But if those motives are religious—or can be said to be religious—Glimm would make illegal things legal.

The problem with that idea is that you can claim your religion justifies pretty much anything. By definition, there are no rules to what you can take on faith. Here’s Bob Jones in 1960, explaining why Christian religious beliefs justify racial segregation. Fifty years later, hardly anyone would argue that making restaurants serve black people unconstitutionally prohibits Christians from freely exercising their religion. But that was a prevailing argument in the Jim Crow South.

If only there were some parallel to that era of Christian discrimination and county clerks refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples today. But it’s not the same thing, because the Bible specifically says that homosexuality is wrong. It’s right there in Leviticus 20:13:

If a man also lieth with mankind, as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

See? Forcing businesses to serve gay people clearly prohibits the free exercise of the Christian religion. So does the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. See Leviticus 25:44-46:

Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession.

Here we come upon a conflict, since the US Constitution is the word of God and so is Leviticus. Are we to believe what God said in 1865 or in 6000 BC? I would say that we need more textual research, but I put down my camouflage Bible for a second and now I can’t see where it is.

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  1. Hilarious. You make identity politics so fun! For the non-identity aspects of this law, I had to look hard on the internet. As we know, believing in an ethics does not give you the authority to enforce it on others. I believe the Indiana legislation proposes a reasonable rule for the dilemma of how democratic societies mediate conflicting authorities on what is right. It’s not the only possible rule, but in lieu of Jefferson speaking in tongues, its a workable one.

    The legal standard instituted by Indiana’s RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) is the same standard which allows Abdul Maalik Muhammad to wear his beard and prevents the city of Philadelphia from interfering with religious charities who want to give food to homeless people. Its an interest-balancing test which requires the government to provide “clear and convincing evidence” of its compelling interest before it places a “substantial burden” on the exercises sincere beliefs. And the government does, it needs to do so with the “least restrictive means possible.” So, Muslim prisoners get to grow their beards and Christians get to hand out food while the internet gets to go apeshit without having a read a single court opinion in their lives.

    The Indiana law professor from whose op-ed I pulled these examples suggests that the government is routinely found to have a compelling interest in preventing discrimination. So the legal outcome of denying gays the right to patronize your services probably will not change. No one should worry about the legal ramifications, however, since we know who the bad guys are on this one and have no qualms about enforcing our authority on them.

  2. Obviously the Constitution is the word of God. No mortal could have come up with the ingenious “three fifths compromise.”

    The strategy behind Indiana’s RFRA is to allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT folks, among other forms of discrimination. That it is the hope of sponsors like Scott Schneider. So the spirit behind it is not the same as bills designed to allow Muslim prisoners to wear beards or whatever. It’s also different than other states because there are not as many balancing protections for LGBT people. And its proponents are opposed to expanding those protections. So the law is about discriminating against gay people. Maybe that won’t happen when things go to court, but that is certainly the intention of its creators. And its hard to imagine Governor Spence is not aware of that. So I think we do know who the bad guys are.

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