What Is the Real Threat to Religious Freedom in America?

by Dan Quinn

Right-wing politicians and pressure groups cynically claim that religious freedom is under attack in America. But in a column published today in the Austin American-Statesman, Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller writes that the real threat to religious liberty comes from those seeking to redefine what that freedom actually means. Kathy’s full column is below.

Recent court decisions extending marriage equality to same-sex couples in more states have led to another round of charges that religious freedom is under attack in America. These cynical claims couldn’t be more wrong.

If religious liberty in America is really threatened, the danger comes from efforts to redefine what that freedom actually means. We see this in debates over many issues.

Critics say the legalization of same-sex marriage threatens the religious freedom of those who oppose it. But clergy will continue to preside, and rightly so, only over weddings that align with their particular faith beliefs. On the other hand, many states still refuse to recognize same-sex weddings performed by clergy who find such unions compatible with their religious faith. What about their religious freedom?

Critics go further by complaining that religious owners of secular businesses – like bakers and facility operators – won’t be able to discriminate against same-sex couples seeking their services.

But our laws don’t allow the manager at the local hardware store to refuse service to female customers because his religious beliefs forbid him from interacting with women unrelated to him. Similarly, if the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had exempted business owners who based their support for white supremacy and anti-Semitism on their religious beliefs, the discrimination protections in that landmark law would be almost meaningless.

Yet some politicians and activists today argue for precisely such exemptions. We saw this during the debate over passage of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance last spring. That measure bars discrimination based on race, gender, religion, and other characteristics.

A conservative Christian minister argued that including sexual orientation and gender identity in the ordinance would undermine religious freedom. Under persistent questioning, however, she eventually acknowledged that business owners should also be free to fire or deny service to, for example, Jews for religious reasons. That’s not religious freedom. That’s discrimination.

The long-established principle in America is that those who choose to do business in the public marketplace must treat everyone equally under the law. This principle doesn’t require business owners to change their religious beliefs or how they live their personal lives. It simply acknowledges that we live in a diverse society that respects equality and civility in the public square.

The debate over marriage and the Houston ordinance has shown that the real danger to freedom comes from those who seek to impose their own religious beliefs on people who don’t share them. We see this on other issues as well.

For example, social conservatives argue that employers should be able to deny, for religious reasons, birth control coverage in their workers’ health insurance plans. This radical view holds a woman’s personal decisions about whether and when to have children hostage to the religious dictates of her employer. That’s also not religious freedom.

Some politicians also arrogantly point to God to justify anti-abortion legislation. In 2013, for example, state Sen. Dan Patrick argued in favor of such legislation by pointing out that supporters were “listening a little closer” to what God wants.

Our nation’s founders surely didn’t think politicians had the special wisdom to know who is really listening to God. Indeed, many clergy and other people of faith point out that their religious beliefs lead them to support the right of women to access safe, legal abortion care.

The Constitution rightly guarantees religious freedom for all. But when politicians wield religion as a weapon to divide our communities and to promote a narrow and discriminatory public policy agenda, all freedom – including religious freedom – suffers.