“Religious freedom” acts are popping up all over the country, particularly south of the Mason-Dixon line, but where is the freedom? The freedom in most of these acts seems to be granted only to one specific group of people: Religionists. Religion is a touchy subject and I respectfully try to avoid it in this blog, but sometimes it is simply unavoidable. For the record, I take no sides other than the side of the Constitution that guarantees freedom of choice to all people to follow any chosen religion, or not. It is a very personal and individual choice, and I believe we should all honor that. That said, there are limits. An individual certainly has the right to believe as he or she will, to attend the church of his/her choice – or to attend no church, but … nobody in this nation has the right to force their religion or beliefs upon another individual, either directly or indirectly. Nobody – neither the government nor churches nor private citizens. It is rather like my right to own a dog and keep him on my property. Yes, I have that right, but if he barks all night and keeps the neighbors awake, then my right to own that dog has infringed upon their right to sleep at night.
So often I hear people say that the United States is “a Christian country”. But that is not true. Though it is true that Christianity is the most common religion in this nation, it is not the only one, and our government is a secular government. The Constitution grants the exact same rights to Muslims, to Hindus, to Jews, and to atheists as it does to Christians. Every person has the same rights. I think, however, that in the past decade or so, we have come to misunderstand what a “right” is. It is past time that we try to put this all into perspective so that we can get back to the business of trying to live together in peace and harmony, rather than arguing over who has a right to be married, who has a right to eat in a restaurant or use a public restroom, and who has a right to live in a neighborhood. We need to be looking for solutions that can protect the rights of one group without robbing another group of their rights.
If a restaurant owner denies service to gay people or Jews or black people or Muslims, then he is discriminating against another human being. Businesses are open to the public. The public is inclusive, not exclusive. If the only people a business owner wishes to serve are those who look, act and think like himself, then I think it is safe to say that he should not own a business that serves the public.
To be sure, there are cases where the rights of certain religious groups are infringed, and in those cases legislation is needed. Things such as coroners conducting autopsies on people whose religion barred them, city rezoning that excluded churches in certain neighborhoods, thereby requiring residents to travel longer distances to attend services, and local governments dictating the design of churches, overriding the wishes of the congregations. These were the types of infringements that prompted the passage of Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. That federal law made sense, ensured the rights of religious people, and did so without infringing on the rights of others. The spate of state laws that we are seeing now, however, have taken the concept of “religious freedom” far outside the boundaries of that which is sensible and well into the territory of discriminatory.
Last year, the United States Supreme Court, the highest law of the land, released a landmark opinion giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide, establishing a new civil right. Now a number of states are passing laws that infringe upon that right. Why? Because the religionists wish it. I can almost guarantee that if the states do not repeal or at the very least modify these laws quickly, we will start to see cases challenging the law work their way through the legal system, eventually ending up at the Supreme Court level. It will take years and cost large sums of taxpayer money, all of which could be avoided with a bit of tolerance, compassion, and common sense. Tolerance, religious and otherwise, is surely to be valued over closed-mindedness.
Mississippi and North Carolina are just the two most recent states to enact highly discriminatory laws in the last week. Many others have similar, though less restrictive, less discriminatory laws. It is one thing to condemn a person based on their behaviour. A bar owner certainly has the right to refuse service to a customer who is inebriated or starting trouble. A shop owner can and should refuse service to a customer who is behaving inappropriately and disturbing other customers or damaging merchandise. But it is not ever okay to judge or condemn a person because of his race, the colour of his skin, his religion or personal choices.
If, in fact, we need to “make America great again”, this is why. I personally still think America is great, especially when I read news from the Middle East, from African nations, when I talk to my neighbors from Syria, Pakistan and Iraq, and when I see the plight of refugees in Greece and Turkey. But America is fraying, not at the edges, but from within. We are taking steps backward toward the past, unraveling the threads of progress that we made over the course of the past 230 years. We are heading back toward a time when people believed that one person was better than another based on irrelevant differences. It is time we start having these difficult conversations, trying to understand and learn about others, rather than merely shunning people because they do not look, act, or think exactly as we do. Underneath those superficial differences, we are all humans, we all have essentially the same goals, hopes and aspirations. We must stop passing “hate laws” and start trying to act like the kind and caring human beings we were meant to be. Remember, one man’s freedom may be another man’s prison.