Let’s Talk About Religious Freedom

Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about religious freedom. Last Thursday, Kim Davis was jailed for contempt of the court because she refused to comply with court orders demanding that she do her job and issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, saying it would “irreplaceably and irreversibly” coincide with her beliefs as a Christian (she was released this past Tuesday). This issue, along with plenty others surrounding it, has ignited a discussion across the country about the limits of the first amendment's protection of free religious practice. The central argument those supporting Davis and others like her make is that if supporting homosexuality violates a person’s religious beliefs, then that person is allowed to discriminate against homosexuals in defense of that belief. However, there’s a small problem with this argument: it’s absolutely and utterly inadequate.

First, let’s talk more theoretically. Rights, obviously, are important. They ensure that our government, no matter how powerful it becomes, cannot do certain things such as censoring Newspapers or enacting cruel and unusual punishments. These rights themselves, however, have limits. You can’t scream “fire!” in a crowded theater just because the first amendment protects your right to free speech, and even the most ardent defender of the right to bear arms wouldn’t argue that this right allows an ordinary citizens to own nuclear bombs for recreational use. The right to religious freedom is no different. We are all allowed to profess whatever faith we please, but that does not mean we’re allowed to do anything we want in service of that faith. We can’t own slaves that perform religious functions, for example, or sacrifice other human beings to our Gods. The right to religious freedom, has boundaries.

Refusal of service to homosexuals simply because they’re homosexual must be one of these boundaries. On one hand, to allow such prosecution would be ridiculously inconsistent. Would we allow a restaurant owner to discriminate based on race if he claimed that it “irreplacably and irreversibly” coincided with her religious belief to serve African-Americans? What about a banker who flatly refused to take on women as clients because he believed his religion strictly prohibited it? Of course we wouldn’t, because these arguments are quite obviously absurd. But discrimination based on homosexuality is no more absurd than these examples.

On the other hand, discriminating against homosexuals because of one’s religious beliefs may very well itself be a violation of the first amendment. After all, one of its key provisions is that no law can be made that imposes a certain set of religious beliefs on any citizen. A country that allows its citizens to deny service to homosexuals is essentially forcing a conservative Christian doctrine upon them, a doctrine that says their citizenship is counted as less important than that of any other citizen of the United States. This is completely incompatible with the belief that the church and the state should be separate entities.

In short, the first Amendment protection of religious belief is just as limited as any of the other freedoms guaranteed us by the bill of rights. It does not allow us to discriminate based on faith, and indeed prohibits discrimination founded on religious beliefs. One of America’s founding ideals, and one of its most inspiring cultural pillars today, is the belief in freedom from persecution. It’s up to us to ensure that this freedom extends to all Americans, whether black or white, woman or man, gay or straight, transgender or cisgender, and isn’t just an empty promise.

With Excitement and Optimism,

Alex