The Corner

Law & the Courts

Religious-Freedom Laws Are Not ‘Unconstitutional Smokescreens for Bigotry’

According to a recent Huffington Post column penned by Episcopalian priest Susan Russell, religious-freedom laws are “nothing less than unconstitutional smokescreens for bigotry against LGBT people.” Russell’s column is full of errors about Christianity and the Bible, but the biggest flaw in her argument is her misrepresentation of religious liberty and the resulting protections it deserves. According to the author, the First Amendment protects only “the freedom to believe or to not believe whatever you choose to about God.” Any other protections, she says, are merely an attempt to justify discrimination on religious grounds.

This is clearly not the case, for several reasons. First, it is important to note that one’s beliefs are not the primary area of concern for the First Amendment’s religious protections. No method of coercion could force someone to believe or not believe something about God. If religious freedom was merely a matter of being free to believe what one wished, the amendment would be unnecessary, because beliefs are held interiorly and cannot be compelled. What can be coerced is one’s outward display of religiosity, and this is the realm that the First Amendment was created to protect.

Russell’s assertion is just the most recent example of a fundamental misunderstanding — or, perhaps more likely, intentional misrepresentation — of religious freedom by those on the Left. Religious freedom is not relegated to the realm of interior beliefs, as Russell states, nor is it merely the freedom to worship, as Hillary Clinton has posited. Both in the Constitution and the resulting judicial tradition, religious freedom is understood to extend to daily life, so that religious Americans can be free to exercise their beliefs in the public square, not just in their hearts or inside their church buildings.

Religious-freedom laws protecting this right — passed because the First Amendment is often not considered enough of a defense in the face of liberal activism — cannot fairly be called a “smokescreen for bigotry.” Contrary to the ubiquitous left-wing claim, neither the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) nor its state-level counterparts permit a religious citizen to refuse service to someone based on his sexual orientation or gender identity. Over the past few years, RFRA has been a matter of public controversy in cases in which a business owner was sued by LGBT individuals for a denial of service. In none of these cases did the business owners in question deny service to an LGBT individual on the basis of his orientation or identity, but rather because the business people objected to celebrating a same-sex wedding. This is a crucial distinction. Religious freedom laws would not — and should not — facilitate a denial of service based on someone’s identity or orientation. It is also worth noting that not a single court has thrown out either the federal law or state versions of RFRA.

If left-wing LGBT activists want to pick fights over religious freedom and the laws protecting it, they should at least bother to accurately define the concepts and laws they’re attacking. That would make it a little easier to take them seriously.

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