Religious liberty: What are we REALLY talking about?
Religious freedom has been the cornerstone of American values from the beginning of our nation, and it is a fundamental right the United Church of Christ works to protect. As originally conceived, true religious liberty is intended to protect both an individual’s freedom to worship and believe according to one’s own conscience, as well as freedom from government imposition of a particular religion or set of beliefs upon an individual. Recently, however, this concept has been distorted and misused to promote and cloak intentional discrimination against women and against the LGBTQI community.
As predicted following the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision in 2014, we have seen a spate of so-called “religious liberty” bills across the country in state legislatures. That landmark decision effectively distorted the intent of religious liberty, holding that the beliefs of owners of for-profit, secular corporations can use their personal faith as justification for denying their employees access to contraceptive coverage as mandated by the Affordable Care Act, regardless of the beliefs of those employees.
The decision emboldened state legislatures to stretch the limits of just how far “religious freedom” protections can go and they have rushed to pass bills that would allow businesses to discriminate openly, denying services to members of the LGBTQI community and preventing women from accessing critical health services. These new bills reach stretch further and aren’t even restricted to businesses owned by people of faith with “sincerely held beliefs.” Most recently, the North Carolina state Senate overturned Governor Pat McCrory’s veto of a bill that would allow some public servants to refuse to perform marriages or issue marriage certificates if they object to performing same-sex marriages, a right which is now upheld under North Carolina law. Many of these bills cleverly employ deceiving language so as to appear narrow in scope, but their impact is far reaching.
Regardless of what the supporters of these bills would have us believe, laws that restrict a woman’s basic health care decisions, sanction discrimination against LGBTQI couples, and skirt federal protections do not uphold true religious liberty. In fact, they do the opposite.
The United Church of Christ is one of many religious bodies which supports the moral and spiritual autonomy of women in decisions about their health care, and which upholds the equality of LGBTQI people in all areas of our shared life. Our work for equality is a matter of faith as well as conscience. “Religious liberty” bills, which pave the way for legally sanctioned discrimination and strip away an individual’s ability to exercise their personal rights as they deem appropriate in light of their faith, are the real threat to religious diversity and religious freedom in this country.
While these bills chip away at centuries of protections designed to preserve real religious liberty, they are also frequently employed as clever distraction tactics from important issues that need to be addressed. Politicians no longer have to be outspokenly anti-choice or anti-LGBTQI; they can simply claim a desire to “protect religious freedom” in order to garner public support. After decades of slow but steady progress advancing the rights of women and the LGBTQI community, we are witnessing a rapid erosion of vital protections.
Times have changed. It is not simply that the we as people of faith must continue to stand in solidarity with same-sex couples, or that we must promote universal access to family planning services. These are important goals to be sure, but increasingly these goals address only the symptoms of the problem and not the cause. The LGBTQI equality movement and the reproductive rights movement have often worked in their own silos, perhaps aware of but not always intersecting with the work of the other. There has been strategic value in this as the needs of each movement have at times been distinct. Now, however, as we see attacks on legal rights and protections advancing on both of these fronts in the guise of religious liberty, it is time for people of faith to work together to reclaim the true definition of religious liberty upon which this country was founded. The UCC boldly took a step in this direction last year by filing a lawsuit in the state of North Carolina challenging an amendment violating religious freedom. We must continue this witness across the United States.
June is Pride month, a time for proudly claiming our identities as LGBTQI individuals, allies, and Open and Affirming churches. We eagerly anticipate the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges coming this month, which may once and for all strike down bans on same-sex marriage. We will celebrate inclusion and equality for the LGBTQI community with the UCC Coalition at General Synod, and the 30th General Synod will faithfully debate and consider a resolution on religious freedom. We will fight to keep abortion clinics open and advocate for policies that do not allow bosses to pick and choose which contraceptive options their employees are allowed to access. We will extravagantly welcome the beliefs and conscience of each individual. And we will defend real religious liberty for all.