The Corner

Confusion or Dishonesty in the Boston Review

David Sehat, a professor at Georgia State University, has written a relentlessly stupid article on religious liberty for the Boston Review. Here I’m going to concentrate on the portion of it where he distorts my words.

In April, the Wall Street Journal interviewed me about efforts in state legislatures to enact laws allowing people to ask courts for exemptions from laws that impose burdens on the exercise of their faith. Here’s the relevant passage:

More broadly, however, social conservatives believe their former silent majority is transforming into a vocal minority that is now pressing its case on specific concerns, from school prayer to homosexuality and transgender issues.

“There’s the sense on the part of social conservatives that we need protections of our liberty as dissenters,” said Ramesh Ponnuru, an editor at National Review and a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank. “That’s opposed to the previous view, which has been that they were in the majority.”

Sehat pretends that I was talking about North Carolina’s “bathroom bill”—specifically, the provision saying that people’s use of public restrooms should correspond to the sex listed on their birth certificates.

Liberty, conservatives proclaimed, was in danger. As the commenter David French put it, emerging legal protection for LGBT people represented “the destruction of the civil rights of the faithful for the sake of the convenience of the radicals.” Bathroom laws and acts that shielded Christian-owned businesses from serving, hiring, or accommodating gay people were designed, social conservatives claimed, to defend religious freedom. “We need protections of our liberty as dissenters,” Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, explained.

But do these arguments really make sense? Christian conservatives pass bills that use the coercion of law to promote their religious notions about gender identity. Then, when the backlash arrives, they invoke the hallowed constitutional right to religious freedom. It is a confusing position.

Perhaps Sehat confuses himself too easily. Leave aside whether the North Carolina law really reflects distinctively “religious notions about gender identity,” and whether a law regulating the usage of public bathrooms can really be said to involve “coercion.” Even if he were right about those issues, he would still be wrong about me: I never said that “bathroom laws” were needed to protect religious freedom, and I don’t believe they are. If they’re a good idea, they’re not a good idea because they protect religious freedom; they have to be justified on some other ground.

In the Journal article—to which Sehat does not link—I wasn’t making a religious-freedom argument for bathroom laws. I wasn’t talking about bathroom laws at all. I wasn’t, as it happens, making an argument for any public policy; I was describing the evolution of social-conservative views. And I was describing that evolution accurately. Sehat spends a lot of paragraphs making the same basic point: Religious conservatives used to see themselves as the national majority and sought laws that reflected their views but now see themselves as dissenters who need laws that protect their rights.

Sehat is distorting French’s words too. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights had come out against religious exemptions from civil-rights laws, and French was criticizing its position—context Sehat withholds from the reader to make French appear to oppose “legal protection for LGBT people” in general. And French did not make a religious-liberty argument for governmental coercion any more than I did. Maybe some conservative somewhere has done so, but Sehat hasn’t bothered to track one down.

Sehat’s students will need to learn how to cite people accurately and honestly from someone else.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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