Could religious organizations be forced to perform same-sex weddings? The hysterical panic surrounding an Idaho wedding chapel certainly seems to suggest so. But as always, if you’ll forgive the pun, the devil is the details and the story is little more exaggerated hype.
Conservatives have long used the fear of religious liberty being violated as a weapon against LGBTQ civil liberties. In Utah, that’s included claims that if same-sex couples were granted their constitutional right to civil weddings, the LDS church would be forced to perform same-sex weddings in temples or face massive lawsuits and government fines. But is religious liberty actually under attack, as we are being led to believe?
The short answer is yes. Religious liberty and religious freedom is being eroded across the nation, but not in the way we are being told.
Religious liberty is one of the founding principles of a nation that was borne out of an escape from the state-imposed Church of England. It was designed to protect all individuals, allowing them to believe (or not believe) whatever they wished—giving us the freedom to choose to be Catholic, Baptist, LDS, atheist, or any other set of beliefs we so choose—free from the power of institutions (like religions, corporations, and government) to force us to comply with imposed beliefs.
It’s a principle both liberals and conservatives hold equally sacred. And it’s why all citizens of Utah should be deeply concerned about proposals being made by lawmakers who want to exempt public employees and corporations from civil rights laws.
Utah State Rep. Jacob Anderegg (R-Lehi) has announced that he will seek to write a new law that would allow public employees like county clerks to refuse to perform same-sex marriages if their religious beliefs say that being LGBTQ is a sin. It’s also expected that this coming legislative session will see a proposal for the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” a model bill being promoted by the right-wing Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund) in state legislatures across the country. The Act would allow private businesses, such as restaurants, to refuse service and/or employment to LGBTQ people if they feel their religious beliefs dictate they should do so.
Why should all religious and non-religious Utahns be terrified of such proposals? We’ve seen this all before. The same language was floated (and in some cases passed into law temporarily) back during the civil rights movement 50 years ago. White business owners claimed that their religious beliefs meant that they should have the right to put up “Whites Only” signs. County clerks said their religious beliefs meant that they should have the right to refuse to marry interracial couples because they believed God found them to be an abomination.
We, as a country, rejected those nonsense arguments. We recognized that religious liberty meant the right of an individual to believe whatever they choose, but when you are acting on behalf of the government or when you are acting as a business, you must treat all people equally. You, as an individual, may believe that God finds interracial couples to be an abomination, but that doesn’t mean your business or your government has the right to violate that couple’s civil rights just because they believe differently.
True religious freedom relies on religious pluralism — the recognition that everyone in the country has the right to believe (or not believe) whatever they choose without fear of being persecuted for those beliefs.
Religions do not fall in that category. A religion has the right to set its own standards and rules. If the LDS Church chooses not to perform same-sex weddings, that is firmly within their rights to do so. But a restaurant or a car dealership isn’t a religion, and while the business owners may have personal beliefs, their business cannot act as a religion and violate the religious freedom of those who have different beliefs.
Exemptions beget exemptions. If Rep. Anderegg’s proposal to hand out exemptions in the case of LGBTQ people is successful, there will be nothing to stop an evangelical business owner to claim that their religious beliefs say that LDS people are sinful and fire all Mormon employees. There will be nothing to stop a male business owner from claiming that his religious beliefs say that women should always be subservient to men, and refuse any promotions to female employees.
Religious liberty is precious, and to be protected at all costs. But redefining that freedom from its true meaning, from a shield for individuals into a sword for institutions to wield, puts all of us at risk.
The hype around the Idaho Hitching Post wedding chapel is little more than a red herring, meant to scare us all into turning our eyes away from what is really happening. ADF may be screaming that the pastors of the Hitching Post are facing fines and jail time to gain media attention, but the city of Coeur d’Alene has repeatedly confirmed that no such threats were ever made, and even the ACLU has confirmed that the Hitching Post is a religious business, performing only religious ceremonies, and is completely exempt from non-discrimination laws.
Non-discrimination laws do one thing, they level the playing field for everyone — neither promoting nor disparaging individuals’ beliefs. Straight business owners cannot discriminate against people for being LGBTQ, and LGBTQ business owners cannot discriminate against people for being straight.
Despite the daily rhetoric we’re being flooded with, the battle for the meaning of religious liberty is not between Christianity and secularism, but between pluralism and authoritarianism. However strong their convictions may be, the Right’s campaign is less about religious liberty than it is about winning the government-backed right to impose their religious beliefs on others. The Framers called that tyranny.