Religious Liberty in Context

This summer has been record-breaking not only in terms of temperature but also in the number of times “religious liberty” has been mentioned in the media. From the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)’s “Fortnight for Freedom” to presidential campaign ads warning of a “war on religion”, religious liberty (and its attendant synonym “religious freedom”) has become a catch-all encouraging a dramatic reinterpretation of the First Amendment.

While no comprehensive accounting of the total number of faith groups in the U.S. exists, it should be virtually unchallenged that America is the most religiously diverse nation on the planet by virtue of the sheer number of unique denominations. And as those denominations multiply, does that entitle religious institutions to greater First Amendment protections? Or, conversely, does it require society to more strenuously defend those social advances that have taken place in the face of religious doctrine?

In March of this year, a grocery store customer in Longview, TX claimed his civil rights were violated and he was mistreated because of his religious beliefs. The “belief” in question? He objected to an African-American bagging his groceries. The customer, who considers himself a practitioner of an early form of Hinduism known as Vedism, requested that someone other than the African-American cashier bag his groceries. When he returned to the store on a different occasion and again reiterated his objection to an African-American bagging his groceries, he was detained by the store management for the purposes of being charged with criminal trespass. Putting aside the question of whether or not the customer has a correct interpretation of Vedic beliefs, the more relevant questions are: is this what defenders mean when they speak of “religious liberty”? And should any state or federal judge be constitutionally bound to allow this practitioner the right to his admittedly discriminatory beliefs?

This extreme example serves to underscore the vigilance required in a pluralistic society. Enshrined in our Constitution - Article I Section 2 to be precise - is one of the most flawed passages ever to be ratified by a democratic republic: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned…by adding to the whole Number of free Persons…three fifths of all other Persons.” African-Americans, the very same individuals who built the Capitol building that housed the government created by the Constitution, counted for only three-fifths of a human being. Scholars can debate about whether or not this designation was religiously based (although given that the Mormon church began allowing African-Americans to hold the priesthood beginning all the way back in 1978, such hypotheses would seem easily defensible), but the fact remains that numerous examples exist of society beating religion to the punch on issues of liberty and equality. The recent adoption of marriage equality into the Democratic Party platform is one of the most recent instances of American society outpacing religious doctrine in the social justice arena.

In fact, the “religious liberty” argument is probably best outlined by the marriage equality issue, even more than in the USCCB’s highly vocal opposition to the contraception debate. The First Amendment can and should protect religious institutions from performing a ceremony they feel is counter to their doctrine, but it should not be invoked to prevent the State from recognizing that ceremony if performed privately or by another religious institution without such prohibitions. The contraception debate becomes a more complex argument due to the nature of our country’s private health care system, but it still hinges on individual liberty. Employees of a Catholic university or hospital should have access to contraception, but are free to exercise their First Amendment liberty not to use contraception if they feel it is in conflict with their religious beliefs.

Like the case in Texas, whether or not there is agreement with a religious tenet, if the free exercise of a belief comes into direct conflict with another citizen’s individual liberty, society has every right to reexamine the application of “religious liberty”.

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