Protecting First Amendment Rights

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

— First Amendment to the Constitution

I must admit that I am somewhat baffled by the string of new laws passed by various state legislatures pretending to protect religious beliefs as they pertain to same-sex marriage and to the LGBT community. Rightfully, several governors vetoed the work done in their legislatures, but others did not and signed them into law.  Taking it one step further, Tennessee passed a law making the Bible the official state book. (As of this writing, it is unclear whether the governor will veto or sign the bill.) In most, if not all, of these cases, legislators claim that religion is under attack.  In fact, they really mean that in their view, conservative Christianity is under attack.  If they felt that “religion” was under attack they would decry Mr. Donald Trump’s and Senator Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) proposals to ban all Muslims from entering the United States and to spy on those already here.  That is certainly a threat to Muslims practicing their religion.

So why do they feel that way?  The short answer is that I cannot pretend to know what is in their hearts. I will say this, however. I am a practicing Catholic with close ties to my local parish and in no way do I feel that my religion or my ability to practice it is in any kind of danger.  And Catholics know something about being discriminated against for their religion. Without going into a lengthy history lesson, let me remind you that Catholics in most of the original thirteen colonies were widely discriminated against, especially in matters of property, voting or holding office.  Even after the Revolution many of them had prohibitions against Catholics holding office, or requirements for them to denounce their religion before they could hold office. Other religions were equally mistreated.  With the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, freedom of religion as provided in the First Amendment became the law of the land, but it did not preclude suspicion and  intolerance of Catholics which carried into the Twentieth Century and included anti-Catholic criminal acts by the Ku Klux Klan. Some of that sentiment was a carry over from the Reformation.  Much of it centered on immigrants, especially from Germany and Ireland.  Other manifestations centered on a belief that American Catholics, if given a chance, would turn the country over to the Pope in Rome.  In my lifetime I remember the anti-Catholic sentiment directed at John F. Kennedy as he ran for president leading him to make a major speech that certified his loyalty to the United States rather than to the Pope.  There is more, but you get the idea.

So, yeah, I will say it again, I know a little something about “attacks on religion” and I most definitely do not feel that I am under attack.

I do feel that the separation of church and state ratified in the Constitution is under attack. State legislators, and those that support them, seem to feel that the government is forcing them to do something evil by treating LGBT folks as they themselves would want to be treated.  I will say up front, again, that I do not know what is in their hearts or the sincerity of their beliefs, I just fail to see the logic behind the idea that if one serves a same-sex couple a cake that one will then burn in hell. Just like I am not a Constitutional scholar, I am also not a theologian, but I have read the Bible (cover to cover — not bragging, just saying most people I know only read excerpts of it) and I do not see anything about serving cakes to same-sex couples.  I also do not understand the belief that by doing so, one condones the same-sex marriage.  By serving divorced people does one condone divorce?  By serving atheists does one condone atheism?  Of course not, especially since there is nothing to condone, condemn or otherwise get one’s knickers in a knot over.  It’s nobody’s business.

Some argue that the real issue is “protecting” young girls from predatory men in bathrooms. Thus the laws state that one must use the bathrooms designated for use based on one’s birth sex. Besides wondering how that will be enforced, because there is no use in passing a law if it will not be enforced (bathroom police?  which gives a whole new meaning to “drop ’em mister”), I see that issue as a smoke screen to hide much more ominous provisions of those laws that can lead directly to unabashed discrimination under the claim of religious freedom.

The heart of the First Amendment regarding religion is the Establishment Clause.  As interpreted and accepted as law, it is not only the idea that the government cannot establish an official religion, but also that it cannot pass any law that favors one religion over another and cannot pass laws that favor religion over non-religion or vice versa.  In that context, laws created ostensibly to allow religious tolerance can easily become religious intolerance laws as they push the tenets of one religion over others.

I also do not buy the “slippery slope” arguments used by some.  Serving cake to a same-sex couple is not going to result in the eventuality of the government forcing clergy to marry everyone or anyone in their community.  We will have much bigger problems to contend with prior to reaching that point.  It isn’t going to happen.

It seems that in the context of civility and mutual respect that we could survive in a “live and let live” world without having to pass laws over who does or does not get served based on one’s personal religious beliefs. Discrimination is discrimination, however one tries to justify it.

Same-sex marriage is now a reality in the United States and other countries.  With the Supreme Court decision in 2015 in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, same-sex marriages receive equal protection under the law. One may agree or disagree with the decision, but it is what it is and efforts to circumvent the decision by using state laws under the cover of religious tolerance is in my view an abuse of power, and I suspect, will also be shown to be un-constitutional.

I try to understand the real motivation behind such laws.  I am sure there are many that are truly concerned from a religious stand point.  (Which of course assumes that LGBT people are not religious, which is no more true than that all straight people are religious.)  More probably, I think that some of the legislators are really trying to score political points with their constituents.  By that I do not mean that they have listened to the religious concerns of those constituents.  I think instead they are really reacting to what they consider an “out of control” federal government and Supreme Court. They are really trying to show that they will not “tolerate” directions from a “godless” Obama administration.  And they have succeeded — they are ably demonstrating just how intolerant they are.