The "religious liberty" movement poses a grave threat to religion.
For centuries our civilization has been striving to become more loving, rational, and just. In this we have been guided by fundamental constitutional ideals of liberty, equality, and fairness that find expression in our law. The anti-slavery movement, the women's movement, and the gay rights movement represent the spirit of the age -- the blossoming of America's categorical imperative that "all men are created equal."
Religious conservatives opposed all of these flowerings of human potential. In defense of slavery the southern churches seceded from the north before their state governments did. After secession the southern Baptists and other faiths turned that conflict into a holy war in defense of what they called "Christian slavery." Even today as our workplaces and educational institutions have achieved impressive levels of racial integration, our churches remain stubbornly segregated by race.
Over the generations American women have sought a voice in public life, entry into the marketplace and the professions, and control over their own bodies. At each step they have been strenuously opposed by religious conservatives who were confident in their beliefs about "women's place." Even today many of our leading religious institutions boldly discriminate on the basis of gender in a way that would be grossly illegal in government agencies and commercial enterprises.
And now gays and lesbians have emerged from the shadows to claim their fair share of liberty and equality - their full participation in employment, and family life. They wish to be treated like everyone else, as workers and customers, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and simply as people. They do not ask to be "saved" - they ask not to be bullied as children or branded as sex offenders or arbitrarily denied employment and employment benefits. They ask for the legal right to form families of their own. They ask to be treated as you and I wish to be treated.
The success of the gay rights movement galvanized the "religious liberty" movement. In 2009 Robert George, Timothy George, and Charles Colson issued the "Manhattan Declaration" in which they asserted that their religious beliefs entitled them not only to make choices for themselves, their families, and their congregations -- but that their beliefs embody such a deeper truth than nondiscrimination law that it justifies defiance of such laws -- that other people may and must be deprived of equal legal rights because those equal legal rights are, as they see it, contrary to the will of God.
That is, of course, the problem with religious arguments, is it not? To believe at once in a God who is above the plane of human existence, and yet to be confident of God's specific positions with respect to matters of public policy.
And now Indiana is about to join a number of other states that have enacted "religious liberty" laws prompted by the gains of the gay rights movement. Indiana Senate Bill 101, entitled "Religious Freedom Restoration," seeks to legally immunize businesses, employers and perhaps even government agencies and employees that violate the legal rights of others in the name of religion.
The purpose and effect of these "religious liberty" laws is to invalidate other laws that grant legal rights to other persons. The Indiana law is typical. If a person objects to another law on religious grounds, then that law may not be enforced against that person unless the government proves that the other law is "necessary" to serve a "compelling governmental purpose." In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. the Supreme Court ruled that a law requiring employers to provide health insurance coverage for all FDA-approved forms of birth control was not "necessary" -- and therefore it struck down that law as applied to employers with religious objections to it.
Here is the core problem. There are many people who have prejudicial beliefs about race, gender, and sexual orientation that are grounded in religion. It is one thing to permit these people to marry whom they choose, to raise their children as they see fit, and to govern their religious institutions in a discriminatory manner. These are all choices that are consistent with our fundamental principles of liberty and equality. Like everyone else religious conservatives are entitled to lead their own lives -- to make personal and intimate choices free of governmental control, and to run their religious organizations free of government interference.
But it is quite another thing to authorize religious conservatives to violate the legal rights of other people outside the confines of their personal lives, their families, or their congregations. They now claim that businesses may refuse to serve customers just because of their sexual orientation; that employers are entitled to refuse employment or equal employment benefits to gays and lesbians; and that even government officials may refuse to perform their public duties for citizens whose sexual orientation they disapprove of.
As this conflict plays out how will religion be perceived? Will religion be identified with the principles of universal human freedom? Will it stand for truth and justice? Will the dominant message of religion be to "Love thy neighbor as thyself" and to "Treat others as you wish to be treated?" No. The "religious liberty" movement places religion in direct conflict not only with the greatest commandment and the Golden Rule but also with the spirit of liberty and equality that has animated our nation and shaped our society. It is contrary to the spirit of the age and will inevitably fail. And in the process the "religious liberty" movement will do great damage to religion itself.