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Sep. 30th, 2016

There has been a lot of noise about “Religious Liberty” in the public forum over the last couple of years.  I think it started when the US Catholic bishops objected to the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that required that contraception be covered by health insurance plans offered by employers.  The bishops argued that because the Catholic Church believes that the use of contraception is sinful, being “forced” to provide contraception to all their employees was a violation of their religious freedom.  And even after the law was amended to stipulate that the Church would not actually be paying for the contraception coverage, the bishops continued to oppose the measure.  By itself, this objection by the bishops might not have been more than a ripple in the pond of public discourse.

But the bishops had planted a seed that was to blossom into a much broader debate about the role of religion in the public sphere. As the same-sex marriage fight culminated in the Supreme Court’s decision that laws that prohibit same-sex marriage were unconstitutional, the same arguments began to be used by opponents of same-sex marriage. They argued that “religious liberty” gave them and their businesses the right to refuse services to homosexuals.  And now, the same arguments are being used to oppose equal treatment for the transgendered.

The problem with all of these arguments is that it is based on an unreasonably broad understanding of “Religious Liberty”. The concept of Freedom of Religion is all about freedom of conscience.  Everyone is free to believe as they wish, without coercion from others.  However, the concepts of religious freedom do NOT extend to people imposing their beliefs on others.  As with all rights, an individual’s rights only extend to the point where they impinge upon those of other people.

In spite of what some business owners seem to argue, accepting payment for providing services is NOT tantamount to condoning something you believe is wrong.  The morality of doing business is different that individual or personal morality.  The moral good in business is about treating customers fairly and equally, providing goods and services at a fair price, without cheating or lying.  These should be the measures by which we judge the morality of business practices.  The personal beliefs of the individuals involved just shouldn’t matter.

Being forced to treat all potential customers equally is not a form of religious persecution, and the owners of these businesses are not martyrs, as I’ve sometimes seen them called (not the least because they aren’t being killed…).

These issues have faded somewhat from the public discourse, in part because the politicians who supported these positions have found themselves marginalized this year.  However, the issues continue to simmer in the background, and those who feel that their religious values are being threatened are still out there, biding their time, waiting for opportunities to impose their beliefs on their communities, without any consideration for the rights of others.

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