Politics & Policy

The Freedom to Dissent

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Religious liberty isn’t about protecting privilege, but protecting all viewpoints

The Georgia legislature is embroiled in a serious debate about religious liberty, particularly whether citizens with a religious, moral, or traditional belief about marriage will be welcomed citizens within the public square after the Supreme Court’s June ruling on same-sex marriage. Religious liberty should not be a partisan issue. Moving to strengthen America’s “First Freedom,” as religious liberty is often called, should be one of the least partisan aspects of our constitutional order because it speaks so clearly and historically to our American identity. Tragically, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, opponents of religious liberty, partnering with massive corporate interests like Hilton Hotels and the Metro Atlanta Chamber, are colluding to work against the beliefs of Georgia’s faith community.

Much misinformation and mischaracterization surrounds the proposed religious-liberty legislation in Georgia. The legislation at hand, HB 757, incorporates what’s known as a pastor-protection act and language similar to the federal First Amendment Defense Act, a proposed piece of legislation that prevents government from taking any adverse action against individuals or organizations because of a belief about marriage.

Opponents mischaracterize such proposals as a “license to discriminate.” Seen in this skewed light, religious liberty is a Golden Ticket giving citizens a free pass to do anything they want under the rubric of religion. This characterization is as unfounded as it is untruthful. All that the proposed legislation proposes is that citizens — whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or even non-religious — not be singled out, fined, or punished by the government for their beliefs about marriage being the union of a man and woman. From shutting down adoption agencies to fining wedding-industry vendors who have moral objections to same-sex marriage ceremonies (but who gladly serve same-sex persons), the fallout of the Obergefell decision has further emboldened the Left’s modus operandi — coercion.

All citizens should be treated equally under the law, and the proposed legislation helps ensure that differing beliefs about marriage are protected and treated equally. Religious liberty has never been about about singling out any one class of persons for discrimination, and neither is that true this time around. As in the long history of religious liberty that has preceded this current debate, what is at stake is protecting conscientious objectors who have a historical and reasonable belief about marriage and its purpose. The parade of horribles that opponents use to bludgeon the motives and beliefs of citizens in favor of this legislation should be exposed for what it is — hype.

The American project is nourished by refusing to pit Americans’ religious obligations against their obligations as citizens.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam disagree on many things. But one thing that these faiths hold in common is a reverence for marriage as something complementary – that is, based on the innate differences of men and women, who are uniquely designed to be husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. Whether or not one agrees with this vision of marriage, it is undeniable that this understanding of marriage has a rich legacy in America. What religious liberty means in the immediate context is not punishing the millions of Americans of diverse backgrounds who hold a traditional or religious belief about marriage. America should pass smart laws ensuring that no citizen is mistreated, fined, or punished for his or her belief about marriage.

In a surprising and disappointing move, even Georgia’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal, has signaled his plan to veto such legislation should it reach his desk. In offering reasons for why he plans to veto religious-liberty legislation, Governor Deal did so by appealing to his own Christian beliefs. He noted that “we are not jeopardized, in my opinion, by those who believe differently from us.” He may be inconsistent in how he applies this principle, but we agree with Governor Deal on this, despite his opposition to Georgia’s proposed religious-liberty legislation. In fact, Deal’s comments capture perfectly why such legislation is necessary. Georgia, and America, are not jeopardized by leaving room for dissent on the Supreme Court’s new-found definition of marriage. Proponents of redefining marriage weren’t penalized by law before the Supreme Court’s action; and now, after the Supreme Court’s decision, citizens with different beliefs about marriage shouldn’t face penalty either. The American project is nourished by refusing to pit Americans’ religious obligations against their obligations as citizens.

Governor Deal is right to express his beliefs the way he did without fear of reprisal or intimidation, whether those beliefs were founded on religious principle or not. All that the advocates for religious-liberty legislation are asking for is the same opportunity — nothing more, nothing less.

— Andrew T. Walker is the director of policy studies for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. You can find him on twitter @andrewtwalk.

Andrew T. Walker is an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Executive Director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement.


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