The Inherent Flaw In ‘Religious Freedom’ Laws

The past several years have seen a slew of “religious freedom” laws popping up — mostly in state governments, though a few arose at the federal level.

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The “religious freedom” laws attempted in various states are an effort to head off court cases like the one mentioned in this story, about a Christian baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay couple and was later sued for discrimination.

As an example, take Texas’ current attempt: at least 18 separate bills in the 2017 legislative session. These cover any number of topics, all couched as “protecting the right of Texans to hold sincere religious beliefs”. The two that made it the farthest were House Bill 3859 and Senate Bill 522. The former would allow “faith-based” foster/adoption agencies to discriminate based purely on gender and sexual orientation; the latter regards county clerks opting to refuse marriage licenses to certain people. Others are added as amendments to unrelated must-pass bills, like the amendment to HB 2950 that would allow medical professionals to discriminate without repercussion if they claimed their discrimination was based in religion.

If you have the time, read the language of these bills/amendments and note some very important things. (Or just take my word for it.)

Note 1: None of these bills specifically mentions any particular religion.
Note 2: All of them are written and proposed by Christians.

The thorny problem here, logically, is that other religions exist besides your own.

The people supporting these legislative efforts really don’t want freedom for all the religions; just one. We know this because they are very often the first to cry foul when someone who believes differently from them is allowed to practice their “religious freedom” — wearing an Islam-inspired head covering, for example, or sporting a colander in a driver license photo — actions that harm no one, discriminate against no one, and have zero effect on anyone’s life other than the person in question. Yes, wearing a colander in support of an invented fake religion (FSM) is silly. But only in the same way that wearing a habit, hijab, or burqa is silly — that there are no practical reasons for it.

They’re willing to dive into the waters headfirst without checking what lies beneath the surface — passing bills without thinking through the consequences.

Let’s imagine for a moment that one of these bills goes unchallenged in court and is enforced as law. It would mean that anyone, of any religion, could act according to their “sincerely held” religious beliefs, regardless of the impact on other people. Keep in mind that “anyone” in this thought experiment might not be a Christian. They might be a Muslim, a Jew, or a Satanist (Satanists don’t actually believe in Satan, in case you’re confused). It might be a religion you’ve never heard of, but that doesn’t make its adherents’ beliefs any less “sincere”.

Imagine a Walmart with every cash register open (a fantasy, I know), and a different religious person at each register. At register 1, you’ll be turned away because of your wedding cake with two grooms atop it, because that particular cashier is a Christian and believes he shouldn’t “participate” in gay weddings. So you go to Register 2. There, you’re turned away because of your bacon. At Register 3, it’s the coffee that causes a problem. The caricature of an angry atheist at Register 4 won’t serve you because you’re wearing a crucifix around your neck or have on a T-shirt from a Christian Rock concert. It’s his sincerely held believe that Christians shouldn’t be allowed to buy things, and that it would be best if they were herded off to an island somewhere so they don’t get the benefits of a secular society. The vegan at the next register decides to take a stand because you’re buying deli meat, milk, and eggs — she’s saving the animals! Few beliefs get more sincere than that one. At another register, the environmentalist notices your car keys — they’re for a gas guzzler! Try again.

“But wait”, you say, sincerely. “Some of those aren’t religions.”

And that’s where you could turn out to be very, very wrong, if bills like this ever make it to the light of day without serious editing. See, you only get to define your own religion. You only get to decide what your own religious practices are, and your own sincerely held religious beliefs. You don’t get to say what my beliefs are, or how I should practice them.

If I turn away a Christian from my business, purely because he’s a Christian, is that discrimination? Yes, of course. But these laws — as written — open up exactly that kind of loophole. You already believe that all the religions (except yours) are made-up nonsense anyway; it’s a very short leap from there to realizing that new ones too can get made up on the spot.

This is why Arizona’s governor vetoed SB 1062 a few years ago, and why Mike Pence had to “fix” Indiana’s similar bill (in effect, making the original bill pointless).

It has always been clear that these “religious freedom” bills are nothing more than “freedom to discriminate” bills. It has always been clear that they’re advanced by Christians (particular strains of Christians, to be fair). And it has always been clear that they will fail in the long run.

It is almost comical to watch theocracy-pushers twist their own language and arguments in order to defend such efforts as protecting religion in general, when it’s clear they only want to protect their own subset of beliefs. Some are bolder, saying outright that only their specific religion should be enshrined into law, but the attorneys who write the bills know they have to be more careful, that it has to be written as if all religions are being protected.

The obviously easy way out of this is to just bake a wedding cake for the gay folks, because it doesn’t affect your religious beliefs in any way to so. It would save a lot of time and effort, not only on your part, but on the part of everyone who has to push back later when you try to write a law allowing you (and everyone else) to discriminate.

  1. I just can’t wrap my head around how any lawmaker can be blind to how allowing one person’s religious belief to be an exemption isn’t the same as exempting the others rebellious belief from protection.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      I struggle on that point, too, Michael. On the other hand, I’ve known many people blinded to many realities by religion (myself included, for much of my life).

      For example: Facts clearly show that the most effective ways to reduce abortion include availability of contraception, comprehensive sex education, and eradicating poverty. But religiously-motivated lawmakers in (mostly) red states continue to push for abstinence-only sex-ed, clamping down on the availability of contraception, and increasing poverty — the exact opposite of what would work for their stated goal.

      I don’t mean to change the subject here; just showing another example of how religion can blind people to the facts.

      On the other hand, they might very well understand the implications, but are compelled to act as they do regardless. The cognitive dissonance here is astounding either way.

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