Thursday, April 16, 2015

A more sympathetic take on religious accommodation

As a thoroughly non-religious person — one raised outside any religion — I confess to a great deal of impatience when I try to come to terms with arguments for religion's role in civic life. My feeling is, let it inform your own decisions on how to lead a moral life — but keep it the hell out of my decisions.

That's why I'm conflicted about Warren Richey's piece "Gay rights and religious liberty: Can Americans have both?" in the Christian Science Monitor.

It points out that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in the wake of a group of Native Americans being denied the right to use peyote. The Supreme Court held that federal laws of general applicability, such as anti-drug laws, could be applied to religious groups in spite of the First Amendment's generally perceived broad protection of religious exercise. Since the Court later decided that the federal RFRA only applied to federal statutes, we've arrived at the current landscape in which many states are looking to enact, or have enacted, their own versions.

To the extent that minority religious practices are being protected by state-level RFRAs, it's hard to argue with those laws.

On the other hand, religious groups have been the bane of progressive causes near and dear to my heart for decades. I support the right of women to have safe and legal abortions. I support the right of non-heterosexuals to ... well, live. However, bigoted ministers and pastors and other so-called religious leaders have railed against abortion and homosexuality in terms that demonize people like me. The opposition I could respect at an intellectual level; it's the demeaning of their opponents as subhuman that sticks in my craw.

Richey's piece goes on to portray Utah as a model for accommodation of both sides, if by both sides you mean "gay rights" and "religious liberty". My concerns over so-called "religious liberty", however, go beyond the most zealous believers' opposition to gay rights. Organized religion has often been the strongest supporter of the status quo, and loves to find minorities to exclude and to disfavor. Christians like to point out that it was religious denominations who led the opposition to slavery in the U.S., but neglect to acknowledge that other denominations provided the moral underpinnings that allowed many to conceive of slavery as the natural order. Similar arguments can be made for civil rights generally.

In fact, what I find most troubling about religion isn't the specifics of any one so much as the habit of mind religion often inculcates. The monotheistic religions in particular encourage unthinking acceptance of a set of rules for living, coupled with a long history of excusing intolerance of and violence against those who aren't part of the group.

Not all denominations of any religion are guilty of such intolerance and violence, but the most tribal and divisive denominations and sects are the loudest voices in our civil discourse. It's those denominations and sects — Christian ones, primarily — that are at the forefront of the pro-RFRA movement. It's those denominations and sects that have grabbed headlines for wanting to demonstrate their hostility to non-heterosexuals.

Hence my antagonism toward laws that give them a legal license to indulge their basest impulses in the name of their religion.

As I've said before, we wouldn't tolerate a so-called religious right to conduct human sacrifice. We recognize limits on the rights of the faithful to pursue their faith in the public square. We do so reluctantly, and only to ensure that the public square remains open to all. But we do so.

The idea that we need to accommodate religious liberty is one I can respect in the abstract. However, I think that the state-level RFRAs that have been and are being enacted are legal redoubts behind which people can indulge their prejudices in the name of religion. And tomorrow those prejudices will be directed against someone else, someone other than non-heterosexuals. Will Louisiana's RFRA, for instance, permit a Muslim business owner to deny service to a believer in Santeria on the basis that the business owner considers Santeria blasphemous? (Given one Louisiana legislator's overweening concern for protecting the business rights of those opposed to same-sex marriage, mine might not be an idle concern. On the other hand, it's impossible to imagine the Christian majority in Louisiana getting involved in such a fight as I postulated.)

I hate unnecessary alarmism: it's a hallmark of the religious right and, indeed, of every formerly dominant group now threatened with having to share power in this country (whites, men, Protestants, etc.). Yet given the overwhelming religiosity of this country throughout its history, I don't think my concerns about so-called "religious freedom" laws is misplaced.

Richey's piece is considerably more sympathetic to the concerns of religious-freedom advocates than I am, and it did make me consider those concerns in a more positive, less threatening light. It didn't eliminate my worries, but then, after decades of regressive statements and actions, no one article could. It will take decades of non-aggression for me to be less suspicious of religious groups and more welcoming of their presence in the body politic.

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