Over the last couple of weeks Arizona has become the latest battle ground in the fight over religious liberty, rights of conscience, and discrimination against homosexuals. The central issue is this: should private business owners be allowed to refuse services to homosexuals, for religious reasons? It’s a complex issue with no discernible answer, but I think if we- for the sake of argument- could briefly spy this issue through the lens of speech, by comparing it to a recent issue concerning the beliefs of a different and much larger private business owner, perhaps it may be easier for us to understand.
Freedom of speech, like freedom of religion, is a first amendment right, viewed by our founders as an intrinsic liberty that must remain irreproachable if our nation is to enjoy true freedom. The measure of our resolve to protect this right is how we treat speech we find most noxious. The very aim is to protect the views and voice of the minority, against a majority rule. A perfect example is what happened in 2012 when Chick-fil-a president, Dan Cathy, in an interview with the Baptist Press, responded to a question about marriage by saying that he and his organization support the biblical ideal of the family; otherwise referred to in our modern parlance as “traditional marriage”. To most people, Cathy’s admission that he’s not an advocate of same-sex marriage was unsurprising. But it didn’t take long for government officials- in places Chick-fil-a was looking to expand- to threaten Cathy because of his views. Chicago and Boston mayors, Rahm Emanuel and Thomas Menino, both threatened to make expansion difficult for Chick-fil-a, unless they opened their minds and policies.
But here is the problem: this is a private business owner, expressing his personal beliefs, in an interview in which he was asked a question relevant to those beliefs. Was he supposed to circumvent the question? Should we expect him to lie? Why would he? He believes his perspectives are in line with the deity, and that it is everyone else who is behaving immorally. What reason does he have to feel ashamed?
It was perfectly appropriate for private citizens that disagreed with Cathy’s views to boycott Chick-fil-a. It was equally appropriate for them to argue against Cathy’s views by using their constitutionally protected rights of speech and assembly in any peaceful way they thought applicable. But it is unconscionable for government officials to make suppressive threats against a privately owned company, when there was no evidence that company was acting discriminately, after the owner of said company did nothing but exercise his right to free expression.
I don’t agree with Cathy’s perspectives. As a matter of fact I find them toxic. But I certainly believe in his right to express them. Why? For one, it’s an absolute right guaranteed by the Constitution. Secondly, the only reasonable expectation those of us who support marriage equality have, to the right to say what we think, is ensuring that those whom we disagree with also possess that same liberty. There is no way to square that circle. And I’d rather live in a country that grants everyone free expression, than one where the government becomes the arbiter of what’s permissible. That’s not because I wish to hear anti-gay vitriol screamed from every street corner, nor is it because I think religion should be dictating agendas, it’s because I want people who believe in homosexual equality, to have unfettered access to the ears and hearts of us all. If we allow the latter while silencing the formers, than we’ve succeeded only in making our country less free.
Religious liberty and rights of conscience are also immutable ideals in this country. But they can be challenging to defend in a litigious society, primarily because they are private and singular. We may find like-minded groups of people, who share thematic consistencies in thought and belief, and we may ultimately transform our common philosophies into dogma, but fundamentally, our concepts of religion and God are unique to us. This makes the distinction between bigotry and belief, a nebulous one. No one possesses the omniscience to discern whether a person is invoking religious freedom to abstain from something they feel is antithetical to their beliefs, or whether that invocation is merely a veneer masking their prejudice. While there are people who conveniently use religion to shield them from what is so obviously a prejudicial opinion of homosexuals, it cannot possibly be the case that every religious person does this. In short, there exists, religious people, who truly believe that God forbids homosexuality, and that they run the risk of falling from his favor if they do not abide. These people are shackled to this belief, accepting it as an irrevocable tenet of their faith. How can I, as a member of the irreligious minority in this country, expect equal protection for my views, if these people aren’t also protected? It’s all or nothing.
Many critics of this bill, and the motivation behind it, have found it useful to compare race and sexuality. Some argue that the two are not analogous, but I disagree. A baker in Arizona, who abstains from servicing a same-sex wedding on religious grounds, could never (and would never) deny service to a wedding because of racial prejudice. There is no moral defense for such discrimination. The question is this: since sexuality and skin pigmentation are two things that are inherent to us, how is it an exercise in liberty on the one hand, and discrimination on the other?
It’s a difficult question to answer because in theory, if one could prove that religious belief was claimed only to cover up an obvious hatred for gay people, then there would be no difference in discriminating for sexual or racial reasons. But how does one prove that?
I’m not sure the problem was pervasive enough to warrant a bill, particularly one as broad as this. It was brought on, in part, because a Christian photographer refused to shoot a same-sex wedding. I think private businesses should be able to decide who they wish to conduct business with. It certainly shouldn’t be the role of the government to mandate who they must service. But my personal belief system is one that places equality for people in the here and now, above ineffable beings that we can’t know, let alone prove. Not to mention, this being’s only supposed reference document, is rife with moral incongruities that we would never defend in 2014. This is mostly why I find any religious rationale for not doing business with homosexuals to be decidedly frail. But that doesn’t mean I’d want the government to intervene and force citizens with legitimate conscientious objections, to be coerced into acting against their principles. I think it matters too much that the integrity of the first amendment remains unmolested, and the intent behind it continues unvarnished.
As misguided as I happen to think the earnest believer is on the issue of homosexuality, how can I possibly expect them to relinquish their devout conviction? Who am I to suggest that my perspective is the right one? And do we think the government should be involved in any way other than to make certain a citizen’s right to belief is never trampled on? I’m an atheist who believes that religion is man-made, and as such, should not be able to dictate policies that infringe upon the inalienable rights I believe every human is endowed with. Homosexuals should enjoy equal rights. But like freedom of speech, freedom of religion is only meaningful if we protect the thoughts, ideas, and beliefs we find most horrid. And if that’s true, then we must endure the members of our citizenry who insist that their God is one who would subject their brothers and sisters to inequality. We must wait for these people to see the mark of man’s inherent weakness amidst the pages of their holy books, allowing them to grasp that it is their prejudice, and not God’s, steering this narrative. Without that understanding and patience, it’s not farfetched to envision the government becoming the deciders on what is and is not acceptable thought. And that, for every citizen and special interest group in this country, should be something we rail sedulously against.