The Corner

Frank Bruni vs. Religious Liberty

Frank Bruni writes that many Americans wrongly treat him as a threat to religious liberty because he is gay. The trouble is that he is a threat to religious liberty. It’s not because he’s gay. It’s because he is one of those contemporary liberals who has a conception of religious liberty that is illiberal and narrow, especially compared to the historic American practice. His op-ed makes the point abundantly clear, even as he insists that taking a broader view of religious freedom is a sign of “extremism.”

So, for example, Bruni complains that “churches have been allowed to adopt broad, questionable interpretations of a ‘ministerial exception’ to anti-discrimination laws that allow them to hire and fire clergy as they wish.” Questionable? The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that the Constitution requires the ministerial exception. Maybe Justice Ginsburg is a religious fanatic; or maybe Frank Bruni is not a reliable guide to what constitutes extremism.

Bruni also believes that the exemption of religious institutions from taxes is a special favor from the government, and one that should come attached to more restrictions on these institutions’ activities than we already have.

In addition to being out of the mainstream, Bruni’s thoughts on religious freedom are half-baked. Take this passage:

What’s more, in a country that’s not supposed to promote any one religion over others, we do precisely that.

Would we be content to let a Muslim store owner who believes that a woman should always cover her hair refuse service to women who do not? Or a Mormon hairdresser who spurns coffee to turn away clients who saunter in with frappuccinos?

I doubt it. So why should a merchant whose version of Christianity condemns homosexuality get to exile gays and lesbians?

Where to start? One: We don’t need legal coercion to keep Muslim store owners or Mormon hairdressers from doing these things; market pressures—that is, civil society without the backing of force—seems perfectly well equipped to do the job. Two: What would the alternative to market resolution be? A law banning discrimination against coffee drinkers? Three: If such a law were to pass, religious-liberty protections would probably not help the hairdresser in question, since as far as I know there is no Mormon prohibition on consorting with the caffeinated. Four: I know of no credible legal case anywhere in which a florist or baker is claiming a religious-liberty right “to exile gays and lesbians.”

Bruni closes his column by saying, “I support the right of people to believe what they do and say what they wish — in their pews, homes and hearts,” just not elsewhere. How very generous of him to let people “say what they wish” in their “hearts.” It is another piece of rhetoric that betrays his pretensions to moderation.

As does another stray remark about how our country is “still working out this separation-of-church-and-state business and hasn’t yet gotten it quite right.” Bruni should just say that our country and its Constitution are too protective of religious freedom and need to be changed accordingly. I don’t think he would have a good case, but he would have a more candid, or at least less self-deluded, one.

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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