Religious Freedom to Discriminate Freely
Recently Arizona’s failed attempt to protect the devout from the dangers of interacting with the gays has stirred a debate about religious freedoms in our nation. Religious freedom was one of the driving forces that brought Europeans to North America, and also is a core value of our nation which is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. However the pleas of some rather alarmed citizens seem to indicate that this important freedom is under attack.
What is Religious Freedom Really?
Historically religious freedom has meant that anyone is our country has the right to worship as they see fit. It also confers tax exempt status on religious organizations, exempts religious organizations from certain laws, and in many states prevents you from buying beer on Sundays. Another side effect of religious freedom has been the separation of church and state which may or may not be enshrined in the constitution depending on who you ask or what state you are in. Every now and then the concept of religious freedom rears its head in the form of debates about prayer in school, ten commandments in court houses, or saying under God in the pledge of allegiance, but for the most part people are allowed to worship in whatever crazy way they deem necessary.
Accommodating Everyone’s Religious Freedoms is Impossible
Some people believe some pretty crazy things. In Papua New Guinea, Stephen Tari (aka Black Jesus) is the leader of a cannibal rape cult with 6000 followers. In many Muslim countries strict interpretations of Sharia law would be incompatible with many of the other rights granted to us by our founding documents. These examples are clearly extreme, but their needs to be a point at which religious freedom is curtailed in the name of individual freedom which brings us back to Arizona.
Which of Christianity’s Rules are Most Important?
The Bible has some rather aggressive laws that are fundamentally at odds with our modern society and shared notion of what constitutes western human rights. For example the Bible bans wearing two types of fabric together (Leviticus 19:19 ), or cutting your beard (Leviticus 19:27) or any number of other seemingly innocuous activities. I have not seen any raids in Arizonian barber shops or GAP stores, or Talibanesque laws passed mandating minimum beard length. The culture war here is not fought around beard lengths, fabric choices, or even the ability to buy beer on Sundays. Furthermore, somehow we have developed a negative view of slavery despite the fact the Bible seems to have no problem with it as long as you are not enslaving your own people (Leviticus 25:44-46). The Bible itself is not the source of morality. It simply offers a bunch of stories and messages. It is up to us to choose which ones are most important based on our life experience and values.
The Modern American Interpretation of the Bible
According to modern interpretations of the Bible, being a Gay Abortionist is the height or all depravity. It seems that modern interpretation has left behind the word of God that states that we need to match our fabrics or stone adulterers. What about the Superbowl which would entail a large number of people working on the Sabbath? So clearly not all rules in the Bible are created equal, but what is not clear is the process by which the important rules are chosen.
The Bible as an Excuse to Mistreat People
Some people just don’t like gay people, it has nothing to do with the Bible. They may find a passage in the Bible that seems to back up their prejudices, but unless they are bearded, wearing a single fabric, and doing (or not doing) a whole host of other crazy things, the word of God is simply being used as an excuse for their prejudice.
Church and State
People pick and chose what passages and rules to embrace from all religions. Governments that base the rule of law on fundamental religious extremism are not well regarded in the West. We believe in the separation of church and state for good reason: because everyone’s definition of what constitutes ‘church’ is different, even within the same religion and often within the same congregation.
How Far Should Religious Freedom Go?
Problems with religious freedoms begin to manifest when they brush up against general freedom, such as the freedom to eat at the same restaurants as everyone else. It is fair to exclude people from your religious ceremonies who violate your core beliefs but that should not extend to things that have nothing to do with religion. Religious freedoms are an important thing, but they are secondary to human freedoms. Fully accommodating all religious freedoms are incompatible with a free society and first and foremost we must continue to strive to be a free society.