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Ian Boyne | US moves closer to religious repression

Published:Sunday | September 25, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Michael Rhen (left) takes a selfie with his partner, the Rev Rick Sosbe, of Metropolitan Community Church of Our Redeemer, during a pro-gay rally in Augusta, Georgia, on June 26, 2016. The militancy of the gay-rights movement has been blamed for a rise in religious repression.

The United States, the much-touted home of the brave and land of the free, is edging further away from that legendary freedom, forcing religious, particularly Christian believers, to exercise bravery in standing up to its encroaching secularist tyranny.

The just-published 296-page report of the US Commission on Civil Rights titled Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Non-discrimination Principles with Civil Liberties has been sending shivers down the spine of many a Christian who has heard of its conclusions. This report deepens the culture war in the United States, particularly over issues of homosexual and transgender rights, heightened by the Supreme Court's decision to legalise gay marriage.

Especially since that ruling, there have been attempts all over the United States to have exemptions enacted so that Christians are not forced to accommodate gay marriage. More than 100 anti-gay bills have been, or are being, considered in 22 states. Complain the majority commissioners in this report: "In recent months, there has been nothing short of a tsunami of legislative proposals, the purpose of which is to eviscerate the civil liberties of lesbian, gay and transgender (LGBT) persons using 'religious liberties' as the alleged justification. In late March and early April alone, both Mississippi and North Carolina enacted statutes that condone LGBT employment discrimination, restrict access to LGBT persons to public accommodations and services, and proscribe restroom use when an individual's gender identity conflicts with the sex assigned to him or her at birth."

The commissioners are deeply offended and angered by this and have risen in righteous indignation to defend civil liberties and human rights. Chairman Martin Castro has these fighting words: "The phrases 'religious liberty' and 'religious freedom' will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia or any other form of intolerance.

He is not through: "Today, as in past, religion is being used both as a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality. In our nation's past, religion has been used to justify slavery and, later, Jim Crow."




The culture war is getting more intense, and the rhetoric is increasingly hostile and acerbic. The majority commissioners feel that the pushback against LGBT rights by Christians in America has little to do with genuine protection of religious liberty and freedom of conscience, but has to do with animus against gay people. "There is no justification for these laws and proposals. They are pretextual attempts to justify naked animus against lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender people." They go on: "These laws and proposals represent an orchestrated, nationwide effort by extremists to promote bigotry cloaked in the mantle of 'religious freedom' ... . It is a carefully planned strategy being undertaken to punish LGBT people for having the temerity to pursue equality and prevailing in the US Supreme Court."

Well, the US Commission on Civil Rights is having none of it. It is felt that religious people are using the exemption clause to continue their discrimination against gay people.

What if religious people should demand that they have a right to discriminate against black people because they believe the Bible says the races should be segregated, or that there should be no interracial marriage? What if they feel they should have a right to polygamous marriages because they accept Old Testament only? Why should religious people have the right to exempt themselves from national laws? This is the issue which the US Commission is bringing across forcefully.

Among its recommendations to President Obama is that "overly broad religious exemptions unduly burden non-discrimination laws and policies. Federal and state courts, lawmakers and policymakers at every level must tailor religious exceptions to civil liberties and civil rights protections as narrowly as applicable law requires." Commissioner Karen Narasaki warns that there are those who are trying to use the First Amendment guaranteeing religious freedom as "a sword that can be used against others who do not conform with their interpretation of their faith".

She quotes the Leadership Conference Education Fund approvingly: "Freedom of religion, like freedom of speech and other constitutional rights, is not absolute: One person's religious liberty does not give him or her right to harm another person or impose their religious beliefs or practices on someone else."


Religious liberty


She says, "Great care must be taken to ensure that claims of religious liberty, however sincerely held, do not become a licence to discriminate." Is a Christian baker who refuses to bake and decorate a wedding cake celebrating a gay couple guilty of infringing on the rights of that gay couple? Is a Christian photographer who declines to take an assignment to photograph (won't say shoot!) a man kissing his husband guilty of discrimination? Should Christians be forced to rent their apartments to gay couples? So why can they refuse to rent their premises to gay couples but by law they can't refuse to rent to a black couple?

How does one exercise his religious conscience without violating another's civil liberties? Let's take some concrete cases. First, the Christian Legal Society vs Martinez case in the United States. This concerns the University of California Hastings Law School's refusal to grant official recognition to the Christian Legal Society because it violated its "all-comers" policy. That is, the school says nobody can be denied membership in any school-sponsored recognised group based on that person's beliefs.

So, for example, if an atheist or a Satanist wants membership in the Christian Legal Society, he should be free to be admitted! These are the absurd lengths that these civil-liberties advocates have reached. The law school says there should be no statement of beliefs that members are required to sign. So an openly gay person should be admitted to the Christian Legal Society because denying him membership is "viewpoint discrimination".

By that reasoning, a white supremacist activist should be free to join a black students' group and a meat lover should be free to lead the Vegan Society on campus! An Orthodox Jewish group on campus should not have membership rules that bar Salafi Muslims to join, and no Calvinist group should debar a virulently anti-Calvinist student because that is discrimination.


Discriminatory standards


In the Martinez case, the court actually ruled that the Christian Law Society could not get any official recognition and therefore, no university support, because it had discriminatory standards of membership. Many university campuses in the United States are the greatest bastions of repression.

US law grants ministerial exemption that protects clergy from discrimination suits. For example, the Catholic Church cannot be forced to admit women in its employ as priests under the rubric of equal employment. Theological schools can determine criteria for employment that are consistent with their specific theological traditions without being considered equal - opportunity violators.

If some secularists have their way, these exemptions would go and there would be one law for everyone. This is a major struggle going on in the United States right now. It goes further. Religious people are also being persecuted for even speaking out for their beliefs.

One Christian business couple who catered to gay people told them before serving them what their beliefs were but, they were admonished by the courts not to do so for they were violating those gay people's "dignitary rights". The people were "demeaned" by being told their behaviour was immoral, and using John Rawls' principle of people's "right to self-respect", which is also dependent on the respect acceded them by others, their human rights were being violated.

An eye-opening book with many alarming cases of religious repression has just been published, titled It's Dangerous To Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies. Thinking Christians should get a hold of this. Also, they must wade through the US commission report, for in it the dissenters have put forward a most sophisticated legal and philosophical critique of the majority position.

Christians have to be prepared philosophically to deal with this secularist onslaught. Praise and worship are just not enough.

- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to