Politics & Policy

The Abuse of ‘Human Rights’

District of Columbia mayor Muriel Bowser (Gabriella Demczuk/Getty)
Whenever we take a stand, or fail to, we are helping or hindering America as a beacon of freedom.

There’s an alarming trend afoot involving the misappropriation of words and phrases and principles crucial to lives of freedom and flourishing.

In recent months, I’ve interviewed a flower-shop owner in Washington State and a baker in Colorado who have found themselves in legal fights involving same-sex weddings. (In the case of the florist, the customer who inquired about flowers for his wedding didn’t even file a complaint; an activist state and the ACLU took it upon themselves to do so.) In just a few years we’ve gone from “live and let live” rhetoric to mandated action. This isn’t freedom. And misusing words such as “human rights” as we are doing these days is an injustice to people who are truly deprived of human rights in the horror of North Korea, or under the hand of the Islamic State or Boko Haram or even the Saudi Arabia that so many American officials have been celebrating since the death of King Abdullah.

The most recent example of this pernicious misuse and abuse of words occurred in the District of Columbia. The new mayor, Muriel Bowser, has just signed into law a so-called Human Rights Amendment Act, along with a Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act. Both are attacks on religious freedom. As Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, puts it: “It’s ludicrous to call this ‘human rights,’ when the primary effect of both laws is to deny the fundamental right of conscience according to one’s religious beliefs. These laws would punish D.C. citizens for living and teaching their own faith, in schools and programs that are clearly religious in purpose and inspiration.”

The expectation is that the “reproductive health” bill would force coverage for abortion in employee health plans, something the Obama administration and congressional Democrats insisted some years ago wouldn’t happen under their new health-care regime. The “human rights” component was the ending of a 25-year peace treaty of sorts that has protected the conscience rights of religious schools; with the new law, schools would be forced to sponsor gay and lesbian clubs, allow “Gay Pride” days, and the like. It’s an example of government mandating a “new normal” at the expense of religious freedom.

And it’s not just activist groups or those opposed to abortion and in favor of traditional marriage who are concerned. The previous mayor, Vincent Gray, warned that the Reproductive Health bill was “legally problematic.” Citing a review from the office of the District’s attorney general, he warned about religious-freedom violations and added that the City Council “should clarify the Human Rights Act’s existing exemption for religious and political organizations to ensure that the exemption protects the religious and political liberty interests that the First Amendment and RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] are designed to secure.”

A second example from past month involves a conference in Florida. For the second year in a row, there was controversy, all of which wound up distracting from good, forward-looking, potentially healing messages — from, among others, Paul Darrow, whom I met last summer at the premiere of a timely documentary he co-stars in, Desire of the Everlasting Hills. A former international model, he was living a gay lifestyle and now is not. Looking at the current cultural and political establishment, you could say he has chosen an alternative lifestyle. But his testimony is not about “gay vs. straight,” and certainly not about “conversion therapy,” as it has been mischaracterized; nor was it even about sex or politics. It’s way more fundamental than that. It’s about what is freedom, and what is happiness, and what is the purpose of life. Paul now wants to live in service to the clarity he has found about men and women, and about family and its crucial role in culture. His story isn’t a “happily ever after” in the way our fairy tales end. It’s a love story of a much more everlasting sort, one in which he encounters the love of a Creator whose Creation makes sense in ways that are increasingly controversial. At a time when family is in crisis, and people so often seem to be searching, it’s certainly worthy of a hearing. (And you don’t have to take my word for what Darrow has to say — the documentary is available free online.)

Congress can fix this latest D.C. situation. But the environment we’re in requires not only legislative diligence but also cultural reflection of the kind of which Darrow gives his personal witness. What is freedom? What is our commitment to it? Does a sexual-revolutionary ideology trump it? That’s the debate we’re not having, as words are manipulated, sometimes with the best of intentions.

There should be some meeting ground, whatever one’s beliefs about “love and marriage”; the bullying, the silencing, and the assaults on conscience should not be tolerated. They are not who we are as a people. Or are they now? Those are decisions we make when we either take a stand for freedom or shrug over a District law or a controversy over a florist or a cake-baker. With each one of these cases, we take one more step toward determining whether we will remain a beacon of freedom and human rights or not. 

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. She is on the board of the Cardinal Newman Society. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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