Freedom of Conscience and Federal Power

There has been much consternation in the news recently regarding a law in Indiana that requires the government to demonstrate compelling interest before forcing citizens or business to violate their deeply held and sincerely followed religious beliefs.  The law actually provides the following:

the government can’t “substantially burden” any religious practice unless it can prove that doing so

  1. “is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
  2.   is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

Gay and marriage equality activists have decried this law as squarely targeting them with open season discrimination. On the other hand Wiccans have asserted that the law would allow them to perform moonlit, clothing-optional rituals on the steps of the state capitol. And some Muslims have vowed to use this law to rule Indiana with Sharia. I think all these claims are a bit outlandish. I do think such a law would protect a Muslim photographer from being forced to take pictures of a Jewish wedding or protect a Jewish kosher deli from being forced to cater pork for city government luncheon. It also might keep a gay printshop owner from being forced to print signs and placards for the Westboro Baptist Church if they decided to do a protest in Indiana. Unless the gay printshop owner is an atheist. But we’ll come back to atheists.

The Constitution and Federal Laws require any level of government to show compelling cause, and if no crime is involved, provide fair compensation, before seizing the property of a citizen or business. Isn’t forcing people to violate their conscience an even more intimate breach than seizing their property?

Freedom of Religion is protected in the Bill of Rights along with freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and freedom of the press and many other rights. The Founders and Framers acknowledged that these rights come from our Creator, from Nature and Nature’s God.

Federal Courts have long interpreted many of these rights (freedom of speech, religion and assembly) together as freedom of conscience. I understand that at present it’s all the rage to bash Christians as intolerant for following their religious convictions regarding the life of unborn children and their definition of marriage. Well, some Christians, anyway. Evangelicals, and Southern Baptists and other more conservative denominations. There are also those who have prayed in support of Doctors who perform abortions as well as denominations that have redefined marriage to include gays and lesbians.

Are we as a society, now prepared to decide to bring the full force of government down on the heads of Christians who refuse to cater gay weddings…? Okay, maybe just fines and hearings and other regulatory processes. We don’t really want SWAT teams arresting Pastors who won’t marry gays.  Do we?

First, I think we need to acknowledge that gay marriage is a relatively new phenomenon in American society. The reputation of gay men in the 70s and 80s was anything but committed monogamous marriage.  Excessive promiscuity was the order of the day, at least in the perception of the popular zeitgeist. I don’t recall hearing discussion of gay marriage until about 8 or 9 years ago, maybe less.

As such, I submit to you that perhaps, we need more time for a national conversation, before we start labeling people as hate mongers and banish them from polite society. Mozilla and the Atlanta city council can hire and fire whomever they want to be CEO or Commissioner of the Fire and Rescue Service. But neither the fired Mozilla CEO, or the deposed Fire Chief ever actually discriminated against gay employees or condoned a work environment hostile to them. Yet, they were each forced out of their jobs for not embracing the gay community with sufficient zeal.  Again, I suggest that it’s a bit premature for such banishment.

Some pundits and activists compare the struggle for gay rights with the struggle for Black/ African-American civil rights. When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr rose to the forefront of the civil rights movement with the marches in Washington, DC and Selma, AL, approximately 100 years had passed since the Emancipation Proclamation. It was time for civil rights laws and government force to allow all citizens to live in the communities they could afford and to work in jobs for which they were qualified. Certain communities hadn’t heard the message in the prior decade when President Eisenhower Federalized the Arkansas National Guard and used Federal troops in integrate Central High School in Little Rock, AR. The point is nearly a century had elapsed since slavery was outlawed. There had been time for a national conversation. And the results weren’t acceptable. Now, I also want to note that some African-American opinion leaders do not agree to the comparison of the struggle for gay rights to the struggle for Black civil rights.

I’m not saying that a century is the acceptable time for a national conversation. But neither is less than a decade. Some denominations of Christianity and some Jewish sects already have gay bishops and lesbians in leadership. Some Churches have redefined marriage. Others are holding on to more traditional ways. Didn’t many say during the George W. Bush administration that dissent and debate we not only tolerable, but preferable? And now these same voices are the ones condemning Christians and celebrating the sacking of the Mozilla CEO and the Atlanta Fire Chief. Which is it? Do we want a national conversation or do we want everyone walking in lockstep to beat of the government drummer?

If a gay couple wants to marry in a church, there are many churches that will welcome them. There are many florists, photographers, caterers, etc who would gladly provide their services. Why are we rushing to judgment against family owned pizzerias with only one store? If it was a publicly traded company like Pizza Hut (part of Pepsi), that’s one thing, but this is one family owned store. What happens to freedom of thought, to freedom of religion, to freedom of conscience if we now bring in government force thru regulation, taxation, or troops to decree that all businesses and all churches must serve the customers and preach the sermons decreed by the government? What power does the individual then have against the almighty Federal Government?

And while I’m at it. The State Department is about to conclude a grand alliance with Iran (or at least a nuclear weapons treaty).  Iran is a Muslim country that executes gays and won’t allow women to be educated or seen in public wearing any fashions more modern than the 7th century.  Where is the outrage against a treaty legitimizing Iran? No one in Indiana is advocating stoning gays to death or hanging them.

I think more freedom here in America is the answer. Not more government force. I submit to you all that the Episcopalian Church is model we could all follow. A few years ago, the Episcopalian Church consecrated a gay bishop. Some congregations liked the idea, others didn’t. Those that didn’t like the idea of a gay bishop quietly withdrew from the Episcopal Church and realigned with the Anglican Communion. Those individuals in congregations that disagreed with the congregation decision found another congregation to attend. No government force, or regulation or fines required. Civilized people, with their freedom of association, freedom of travel and freedom of speech, worked it out among themselves.

And here’s an idea regarding gay marriage and Christianity. You can take one verse or one phrase out of context and issue a blanket condemnation of homosexuals. But if you look at the verses and phrases often cited in context of the entire passage, any condemnation of homosexuality the Apostle Paul made, he wrote in context of also condemning drunkenness, wife-swapping and rampant promiscuity. Perhaps it is in context of such excesses that don’t belong in polite society, whether secular or religious, that the condemnation of homosexuality should be understood. If the male gay community wants to leave behind adolescent promiscuity and grow up into monogamy, perhaps the religious community could welcome them into monogamy. If, on the other hand, the male gay community is trying to bring promiscuity into marriage, then the Councils of Bishops, Rabbinical Councils and senior Muslim clerics should stand up assert that marriage is a sacred institution and they will define it as leaders of their religions; government get out of our sacraments. Either way, perhaps promiscuity is the greater vice and monogamy the greater virtue.

And here’s another idea regarding freedom of conscience. These Religious freedom restoration laws that have been much trumpeted, if properly constructed to protect the rights of all at the expense of the rights of none, can be a good thing. Anything that protects the rights of the individual against the power of an angry mob or an overreaching government is a good thing. However, they may not go far enough. Now that Hizbollah and other Iranian militant front groups are being removed from the Terrorist watch list, they can conduct fund-raising openly. Suppose one of these militant groups, which still funds suicide bombers blowing up Hindus in India and provides rockets launched at children and civilians in Israel, wants to hire Penn Gillette as entertainment for a fundraiser. Penn Gillette is a well known atheist. But he’s also well known for his consistently applied moral principles. Should the Islamic militant group be able to sue Penn Gillette for discrimination and compel him to perform his magic act at their fundraiser? Penn Gillette isn’t a member of any organized religion, so he can’t claim protection under a religious freedom law. Hizba’allah isn’t on the Terrorist watch list any longer, so he can’t refuse on those grounds either. Perhaps we need to expand these freedom of religion laws to include all freedom of conscience. Doesn’t anyone deserve to follow their deeply held and sincerely followed moral principles whether secular or sacred.

I think the issue here is where we want government force applied to coerce one segment of the population to do or believe what another segment of the population wants. I don’t think we want that anywhere. We want government to protect life, liberty and property. We do not want government in our bedrooms at all, or photography labs or kitchens (except to enforce local health and safety regulations). The Constitution was written to tell the government what it cannot do; not to tell people what they must and cannot do.

Thank you all for taking a moment to read this.  Okay, two moments; it was one of my longer posts.  I hope you’re all a little bit angry and also a little bit pleased, but mostly I hope that you’re prompted to think about the consequences of laws like this and the motives of supporters and opponents.  Do we really want to empower government over freedom of conscience?  Sound off in the comments below.

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The facts are the facts; the opinions are my own and not necessarily those of my employers.



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