Tomorrow, the US Supreme Court will hear yet another case involving ‘religious liberty.’
‘Religious liberty.’ What a nice phrase. Who could be against it?
But like many a pleasant-sounding phrase, there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Let’s start with motive. You might think religious liberty advocates want the ability to practice their beliefs without discrimination or obstacles.
That’s of course perfectly legitimate, understandable and, in this country, legal.
But sometimes, those advocating ‘religious liberty’ are really seeking something more and something else entirely. They want special privileges and protections, not given to other institutions, whether non-profit, for-profit, educational, charitable or governmental.
If a corporation were to seek these privileges and protections, we’d say they want “special privileges” or “special protections.” Church officials, however, claim they seek ‘religious liberty.’ And very often, they get the benefit of the doubt. They’re smart. They know that couching their wants as ‘religious liberty’ makes their opponents sound bigoted and unreasonable.
Let’s also look at outcomes.
–A warlock in Arizona claimed that his religion required him to sexually abuse his 13-year-old daughter.
–A religious polygamist in Utah sought to add his teenage niece to his group of wives.
–A faith-healing sect in Oregon withheld necessary medical care to children in its local congregation; 78 of them died.
— A Christian Science mom who let her daughter die of meningitis without medical care challenged her conviction claiming that her rights had been violated under a ‘religious freedom act.’
–The state of Vermont found itself powerless to enforce its orders for child support against a father living in a communal religion in which all income was pooled.
–A California school district was forced to permit Sikh children to carry 7-inch functional, accessible knives to school with them each day because of their parents’ religious beliefs (despite a school weapons ban policy).
(Thanks to children’s advocates Marci Hamilton in Pennsylvania and Jetta Bernier in Massachusetts for this research.)
Religious organizations are also ‘weaponizing’ laws – called ‘religious liberty’ ‘conscience clauses’ or ‘religious refusals’ — to let them discriminate against both employees and potential clients.
Here’s how the Guttmacher Institute describes this:
A wide range of religiously affiliated institutions have asserted that they have a legal and even constitutional right to be exempted from government requirements, even those designed to prevent discrimination. Those claims have not been limited to decisions in hiring ministers and others with clearly religious duties. Rather, institutions have often demanded that they be allowed to discriminate on religious grounds even when hiring staff to fulfill government grants. Moreover, institutions have insisted that they be allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals in regard to employment; to ignore same-sex marriages in providing employee benefits; to fire employees who have used abortion care, contraceptives or assisted reproductive technology, or who have had sex or become pregnant outside of marriage; or even to ignore federal law preventing discrimination on the basis of disability.
And in recent years, the INTERPRETATION of ‘religious liberty’ laws has become broader. Here’s how American Progress describes it:
Rather than simply protecting the rights of religious people, RFRA was expanded and misused to discriminate. By treating two for-profit corporations—craft chain Hobby Lobby and furniture-maker Conestoga Wood Specialties—like individuals with the right to free exercise of religion, the ruling allowed the religious beliefs of the company owners to override those of their employees, rescinding employees’ access to no-cost contraceptive health coverage to which they are entitled under federal law.5 The ruling affected thousands of employees, and it expanded the use of religious exemptions by redefining the scope of federal RFRA protections to include for-profit corporations.
So let’s scratch beneath the surface a bit the next time religious groups holler about ‘religious liberty.’ For the sake of society’s marginalized and vulnerable, let’s be a little more clear-eyed and skeptical of claims by institutions, especially powerful ones, that are or say they are motivated by spiritual concerns.