When it comes to homophobia, xenophobia, gynephobia and other forms of reactionary drama, my old home state Arizona has a knack for winning the spotlight. Arizona’s recently proposed religious license-to- discriminate, vetoed by governor Jan Brewer, is merely the latest in a long series of head-shakers. Now that it’s over, most of us would like to think we can turn our attention to our laundry. Or climate change. Or whatever.
Alas, the Arizona theater was just one front in a smart, broad assault on civil rights and civic duty under the guise of “religious freedom.” Copycat legislators in Missouri have garnered media attention by introducing a license-to-discriminate law modeled on Arizona’s, but, again, that is just the tip of the blitz. Elsewhere religious conservatives are quietly or boldly seizing ground, leveraging case law they have built over several decades to secure not only the right to discriminate but also financial advantages and a broad range of other entitlements
“Religious freedom” in this context, is not only the freedom to think and worship as one pleases. It is a get-out-of-jail-free card that also gives holders the right to impose their will on others and mooch off of taxpayers from a position of righteous privilege. If the “religious freedom” argument works, conservatives are betting that it will let them turn back the tide on gay rights, keep knowledge of evolutionary biology away from children and block access to family planning. They hope also to proselytize on the public dime using dollars targeted for education, aid, and national security—while leveraging nonprofit tax exemptions to maximize their real estate holdings and other investments.
Anyone who cares about personal freedom or equality for women, queers, and secular Americans should be taking these aspirations seriously.
Georgia, Ohio, Idaho, and Oregon all have bills under review that would legally secure the right of business owners to discriminate. In Georgia, the law would let a business to ignore state law that “directly or indirectly constrains, inhibits, curtails or denies” the owner’s religious beliefs. The Ohio and Idaho statutes protect people from civil litigation if they acted out of religious conviction. Legislation introduced in Oregon specifically targets gay and lesbian wedding services. Colorado, Kansas, Maine, Tennessee, and Utah have had to fend off similar legislation.
As I said, the right to refuse service is just one of many “religious freedoms” that Christian conservatives are hoping to secure. For example, legislation under consideration in South Dakota protects defamatory speech against gay people.
In Washington in February, publically funded healthcare systems administered by religious corporations won the right to discriminate in hiring. For healthcare workers, the ramifications are enormous because, thanks to mergers, Catholic corporations are the only significant healthcare employer in several counties. Freedom to discriminate means queer or secular doctors, nurses, allied health professionals and even some support staff have no equal right to work. Furthermore, Christian symbols and language let potential employees know they may not be welcome before they even apply. In the San Juan Islands, the only publically subsidized hospital opens job announcements like this: “At Peace Health we carry on the healing mission of Jesus Christ . . . we follow the ethical and religious directives for Catholic health care. . . . “ Catholic care systems have also argued that their workers should have no right to union representation, because being subject to the National Labor Relations Board would violate the religious autonomy of the Church.
Nationally, Hobby Lobby, Conestoga Woods and others have taken up the cry of “religious freedom” in their effort to turn back Obamacare. Justification for this fight comes straight from the Bible, which teaches that “women will be saved through childbearing” (1 Timothy 2:15). As church leaders keep reminding us in vile terms, uppity women who delay or limit childbearing violate men’s rights and God’s plan. Religion advocates at the Becket Fund, together with conservative business owners, have taken this religious freedom fight to the Supreme Court where they will argue that a for-profit corporation has religious conscience rights (and by implication these rights trump both public health considerations and the individual conscience rights of employees). With the Supreme Court dominated by Catholics, “religious freedom” may carry the day.
“Religious freedom” is also the cry of Parent Rights advocates including 70 tea-stained members of congress who have cosponsored a constitutional amendment to guarantee that child rights and protections don’t go too far. Idaho Republicans just killed a bill that would have protected children from faith healing death. Parent Rights advocates receive legal and organizing assistance from the Home School Legal Defense Fund. Their aim to ensure that parents can discipline and educate children as they see fit—even if this includes physical beatings or denying children access to skills and information they will need as adults. Once again, the motivation comes straight from the Bible, where the law of Moses treats children as property of their father and encourages use of “the rod.”
From the outside, some of the claims that Christian organizations have made in court seem crazy: A church should be able to make speculative real estate investments without paying tax on undeveloped property like other investors would. A publically licensed and tax-subsidized hospital should be able to turn away a hemorrhaging woman who needs miscarriage management. A parochial school should be able to obtain public education vouchers while blending biblical literalism into every class. An Evangelical nonprofit should be able to fire warehouse staff who disagree about theology while simultaneously funding their work with federal aid dollars. A missionary group that targets young children for conversion must be allowed to operate on public school grounds if any clubs are allowed.
Astoundingly, these are the kinds of cases that have been won in recent years, some at the level of the Supreme Court. Small wonder then, that religious conservatives across the country think religious privilege is an entitlement, no matter who else might get hurt. Small wonder they have seized on “religious freedom” as the legal trump card that they hope will put them above human rights law, employment law, and civic duty. Whether they can get away with it remains to be seen.
Reactions to the Arizona fiasco suggest that conservative legislators there underestimated the backlash triggered by their transparent bigotry. The decisive arguments came from business leaders who threatened economic costs. But in the long run, the most significant consequence of Arizona’s over-reach may be the impact on young people, for whom the “religious freedom” mantra is now indelibly linked with homophobia.
Recent polling suggests that one of the most common reasons young people leave their childhood religion is “negative teachings and treatments” toward queer people. Public Religion Research released polling this week in which 17% of young adults (aged 18-33) said that anti-LGBTI teachings were somewhat important in their departure from religion, and 14% said they were very important. Even among those who remain in the Church, the war on gays and women is getting wearisome. Christian author Rachel Held Evans put it this way:
The truth is, evangelical Christians have already “lost” the culture wars. And it’s not because the “other side” won or because evangelicals have failed to protect our own religious liberties. Evangelicals lost the culture wars the moment they committed to fighting them, the moment they decided to stop washing feet and start waging war.
And I fear that we’ve lost not only the culture wars, but also our Christian identity, when the “right to refuse” service has become a more sincerely-held and widely-known Christian belief than the impulse to give it.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Subscribe to her articles at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.
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