Sun | Mar 18, 2018

Ian Boyne | The fight for religious liberty

Published:Sunday | October 9, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Ian Boyne

The US Commission on Civil Rights' recent report continues to disturb Christians and other religious believers who fear it will unleash a torrent of religious repression.

The chairman of the US Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee on Religious liberty, Archbishop William Lori, is outraged at the report titled 'Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Non-discrimination Principles with Civil Liberties', which casts religious believers as bigots.

"These statements painting those who support religious freedom with the broad brush of bigotry are reckless and reveal a profound disregard for religious foundations ... ," the archbishop said. Sharply criticising Civil Rights Commission Chairman Martin Castro, who said religious liberty stands for nothing except "hypocrisy" for it is often a code phrase for intolerance, racism, and homophobia, among other things, the archbishop slammed: "Rest assured, if people of faith continue to be marginalised, it is the poor and vulnerable, not the chairman and his friends, who will suffer."

The commission sat for three years and received 110 written comments, an "unusually large number for a commission", it says. Interestingly, more than 100 comments generally supported religious exemptions and the right of religious institutions and groups to direct their own affairs regardless of otherwise applicable laws. Despite this, the commission came out with a report that rejected those views and others that call for greater restrictions on religious liberty. The US Commission on Civil Rights report demonstrates the power of the American secular elite and its anti-democratic tendencies.

Dissenting voices in the report contain some trenchant arguments against its majority position and recommendations. "The secularists have been the aggressors and often use the courts, corporations, public officials from other jurisdictions, the news media, and social media mobs to impose policies that lack democratic support. Many Americans would simply like to be left alone to follow their traditional practices regarding the public expression of religious sentiments but are stymied by collaboration between secularist elites who enforce a sort of 'heckler's veto' against the majority in an unfashionable community. Yes, the constitution protects the rights of minorities, but it also protects the right of the majority."

The US commission's report seeks to restrict religious exemptions to federal laws that conflict with religious beliefs, for example, laws allowing same-sex marriage, contraceptive use (as part of Obamacare), and abortion. Says the commission: "Religious exemptions to the protections of civil rights ... , when they are permissible, significantly infringe upon these civil rights."

It says further and worryingly that "religious exemptions from non-discrimination laws and policies must be weighed carefully and defined narrowly on a fact-specific basis. Without exemptions, groups would not use the pretext of religious doctrines to discriminate". Now notice this distinction made by the commission: "A doctrine that distinguishes between beliefs (which should be protected) and conduct (which should conform to the law) is fairer and easier to apply." Do you know what that means? It means that you are free to hold your religious beliefs in your head but not so free to act on them.

You are free to believe that same-sex marriage is a sin and that children should be brought up with heterosexual parents, but you are not free if you run an adoption agency to refuse a homosexual couple who wants to adopt. You are free to believe that homosexual couples should not cohabit but not free not to rent them your house. Some would say you are free to believe that homosexuality is degrading but should not be free to deny homosexuals the right to be employed in your church-school, for that is discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.




Some are going even further than that. They would take away religious people's right to even freedom of expression in opposing things that conflict with their religious faith, like homosexuality. I give you a specific case. A devout Catholic couple in Vermont, USA, had a bed-and-breakfast business. This couple wanted to comply with their state, which accepts same-sex marriage, so they agreed to host same-sex weddings but to express to those getting married their own view that marriage is between a man and a woman. An employee of the business erroneously told a same-sex couple that the establishment would not host their wedding festivities. The establishment was sued.

The settlement stipulated that the owners would no longer be allowed to state their views on marriage and that they would no longer host wedding receptions for anyone - gay or straight. That's freedom for you in America, land of the free!

As one dissenting voice says in this same commission report, "If the owner of a public accommodation is willing to serve people with whom he disagrees but is prohibited from telling them he disagrees with their conduct, non-discrimination law has overridden free-speech rights." Then the dissenter raises an objection and then dashes it.

But then free-speech enemies smuggle in this concept of 'dignitary harm'. Criticism of homosexuality as sinful and abominable is seen as an attack on a gay person's dignity and, indeed, his humanity and should not be allowed. That person has a right to his self-respect, which, as noted philosopher of justice John Rawls would say, is partly dependent on the respect accorded by fellow citizens. By that view, you should not have the right to preach that homosexuality is morally wrong as that harms the gay person emotionally and attacks his moral worth. It attacks his dignity.

Rawls, in the most important modern philosophical text on the subject, A Theory of Justice, says: "Our self-respect normally depends upon the respect of others. Unless we feel that our endeavours are respected by them, it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to maintain our conviction that our ends are worth advancing ... . Thus, it is a desirable feature of justice that it should publicly express men's respect for one another." This is what our pre-eminent theorist on justice says. This is why religious people's freedom to simply preach against homosexuality - not to harm or call for discrimination against gays - might be outlawed and already is being severely punished.




Just two months before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case that eventually resulted in a ruling in favour of gay marriage, The New York Times ran a front-page story showing that unlike every other major case in Supreme Court history, that case attracted no blue-chip firms or celebrity lawyers to argue against the constitutional claim for gay rights. They dared not do so.

The book It's Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies, by Mary Eberstadt, has some frightening and incredible instances of suppression of free speech. In 2014, the CEO of Mozilla and creator of JavaScript lost his job after it was revealed that he donated US$1,000 to support Proposition 8, a ballot initiative in California limiting marriage to man and woman. He resigned after a cyber-shaming campaign ensued (social media is now the main arena for bullying). A Catholic theology teacher from New Jersey was fired for posting statements on her Facebook page expressing Catholic teachings on same-sex marriage.

Other examples are cited in the book. At an American university, the police were called in to issue a disorderly conduct citation to a street preacher after students complained that his words about sexually transmitted infections and sex offended them. "The City of Houston issues subpoenas ordering specific pastors to turn over any sermons mentioning homosexuality, gender identity ... ." It's not just the US that boasts powerful enemies of free speech and religious liberty.

In Great Britain in 2015, a preacher was sent to jail for speaking 'threatening' words from the book of Leviticus. In Canada, the Alberta Human Rights Commission charged a former Alberta pastor with a 'hate crime' for a letter he sent to a local newspaper in 2002 criticising teaching on sexuality in that province's education system. A Christian health worker in Great Britain is disciplined for 'bullying and harassment' after asking a co-worker if she'd like a prayer (the co-worker said yes) and giving a co-worker a book about conversion to Christianity.

A couple in Britain is denied status as foster parents because they would not recant unwanted passages in the Bible. A preschool teacher in Britain is fired for refusing to read a book about same-sex parents aloud to three-year-olds.

Today, religious believers, tomorrow, all of us.

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