Waking the sleeping beast of religious liberty

Waking the sleeping beast of religious liberty

Something remarkable happened in the run up to the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Hobby Lobby vs. Burwell. A movement was born. A potentially historic movement that does not yet know its name — but which may yet bring the light of hope to a darkening political landscape.

The Supreme Court ultimately threw out historic understandings of the right of individual conscience — what we generally call religious freedom — by extending the right of conscience for employers to claim broad exceptions from laws and regulations on the basis of their religious beliefs.

The decision magnified and encouraged the notion that among other things, religious exemptions from the law justify discrimination against LGBTQ people.

The best known of these exemptions have been bills introduced in state legislatures under the rubric of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Proposed RFRAs (pronounced rif-ruhs) in the past year have included provisions that would allow anyone to refuse to do business with, or provide services to, same-sex couples by citing religious beliefs.

The bills cover private businesses and individuals and even government workers. They would bar same-sex couples from suing anyone who denies them such things as adoption rights, employment, food service, hotel rooms, and social services—as long as the person doing the denying claims a religious objection to homosexuality.

The only state where such a bill became law in 2014 was Mississippi. But the RFRAs have been introduced a dozen other states. It is a trend that will continue.

The model bill was introduced in Arizona under the guidance of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a leading Christian Right legal strategy group. The bill passed the House in Michigan before it was stopped by the state Senate.

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There are plans to introduce a similar bill in Indiana and other states in 2015.

The conservative leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and their allies on the evangelical Protestant Christian Right anticipated the broad advancement of civil rights for LGBTQ people, and even the successes of the marriage equality movement, and so made their redefined version of religious freedom the centerpiece of their political programs beginning with the 2009 Manhattan Declaration.

But one progressive policy veteran thinks the Christian Right’s campaign may “backfire.”

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Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, Domestic Program Director of Catholics for Choice, told me in an end of the year interview, that the claim that religious liberty is under attack in America “has worked in [the Christian Right’s] favor for the past few decades.” But she also thinks that the bishops and their allies may have taken too much for granted and that “they may have woken a sleeping beast.”

She says that polling and her own experience shows that people are horrified when they learn that the Christian Right’s policy prescriptions advanced under the banner of religious freedom in fact restrict the religious freedom of others.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has demagogued the alleged threat to religious liberty in an annual “Fortnight of Freedom” campaign for the past few years. But the effort has largely been a bust. (The planned 2015 campaign bizarrely invokes “great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power.”)

“The Bishops are good at the show,” says Ratcliffe. “But the Catholics in pews are not following. The idea that religious liberty is under attack is not winning at all.”

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“There is an opportunity to mobilize to show the danger and intention behind these bills—and the need to stop them.”

The idea that religious liberty is being invoked to erode religious liberty itself is the awakening that led Catholics for Choice and the National Council of Jewish Women to found the Coalition for Liberty and Justice in 2012.

The coalition now comprises 60 organizations (including us at Political Research Associates) that not only believe in the right of individuals to believe or not believe as they will, and to practice their faith as they see fit, but who Ratcliffe says also embrace “the freedom from being oppressed by someone else’s religious ideas, and the protection from any one religious view point being codified into law.”

The struggle for — and against — true religious freedom looks and sounds different today than it did in the 18th century when Americans disestablished the state-connected religious institutions of their day and overthrew the British Empire. It looks and sounds different. But the principles are the same.


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