President Obama has not yet signed his executive order forbidding government contractors from discriminating against homosexuals, but a group of “major faith organizations” has asked to be exempted from it. Citing Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, representatives of Catholic Charities USA, Saddleback Ministries and the National Association of Evangelicals asked that the president provide a “robust religious exemption” from the federal government’s plan to stop doing business with homophobes. In a letter organized by Michael Wear, the former director of faith outreach during Obama’s 2012 campaign, the groups write, “we are asking that an extension of protection for one group not come at the expense of faith communities whose religious identity and beliefs motivate them to serve those in need.” That whooshing you hear is the sound of open floodgates.
The argument that equal treatment of homosexuals somehow infringes on these groups’ right to exercise their religion is no less intellectually dishonest for being familiar. To claim that the federal government is planning to protect the rights of gays and lesbians “at the expense of faith communities” is to draw a false equivalence between what those two communities want. Gay people want the right to work. The gay agenda, in this case, does not involve religious people, whereas the religious agenda focuses narrowly on gays. The right these Christian groups want is to infringe on the rights of somebody else.
A better equivalence would be if the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company—which, in this hypothetical, has contracted with the feds to supply Chubby Hubby to NSA analysts—refused to hire Christians, claiming it was their right as homosexuals. If that happened, Fox News would declare discrimination with a quickness.
The thing about a right is that you shouldn’t need someone else to exercise it on. My right to free speech, for example, is not my right to make you listen to me. Similarly, my right to bear arms ends when I bring a gun to your house. Christians have the right to believe what they want about gay people, and they have the right to assemble and talk about how the high school choir teacher is going to hell. But they don’t have the right to fire him, or to refuse to pay property taxes in support of the high school that employs him, because that’s not how things work in a community of individual rights—also known as a modern nation.
At least it shouldn’t work that way. In our present modern nation, religious claims are somehow weightier than arguments from shared values. For example, the federal government clearly cares about gay rights. The judiciary keeps striking down restrictions on gay marriage; the executive branch, in this proposed order if in no other way, wants to end homophobic discrimination. We—the American we, the democratic we—want gay people to be treated well, or at least equally to straight people. Yet the authority of our democratically supported government is somehow subordinate to the authority of religious claims.
That’s a problem, because you can make a religious argument for pretty much anything. In Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, for example, a South Carolina restauranteur argued that he should be exempted from the Civil Rights Act, since his religion demanded that he discriminate against black people.
That claim seems absurd now. Racial discrimination is hardly a central tenet of Christian faith. Plenty of devout Christians fought against segregation, just as plenty of other devout Christians defended it. In the end, this conflict was decided not on the basis of whose beliefs were more sincerely felt, or what Christianity really taught, but by our shared values. That was something we could adjudicate based on persuasion and the processes of government, rather than a logjam of unimpeachable claims that forced us to let anyone who complained exempt himself from federal law.
Freedom of religion is not freedom from the democratic project. I have the right to believe and worship as I please, but I don’t have the right to ignore any development in American government that makes me unhappy. I can argue against it, of course. I can buttonhole people at parties and in the public square and try to convince them to change federal laws. But I cannot declare myself exempt from them, simply because I believe something without evidence that I refuse to reconsider.
That’s the thing about religious claims: unlike virtually every other kind of statement, they’re not something we can argue about or gradually come to a consensus upon. They do not appeal to the authority of logic or shared values. They are unsupported claims, pretty much by definition, and that makes them a poor foundation for public policy. The federal government should stop giving in to these kinds of assertions, lest the American experiment become an exercise in refusal.