Religious Freedom Next Year and Beyond

Freedom of Worship - Norman Rockwell 2

I recently attended a conference that included a number of participants who have thought deeply about religious freedom and have acted effectively in its defense. Naturally, everyone was talking about the high-profile legislative battle in Indiana. That got me thinking about what might and should happen in Georgia, during next year’s legislative session, when protecting religious freedom will once again be on the table.

In the unlikely event that you’ve forgotten, here’s what a typical religious freedom bill—modeled on the 1993 federal legislation that Congress passed virtually unanimously—purports to do. In the first instance, it reestablishes a standard the Supreme Court employed to deal with a number of cases under the First Amendment: if a plaintiff can show that his or her religious freedom is substantially burdened by a generally applicable law, then the government has to demonstrate that the law is intended to carry out a compelling state interest and show that it is the least restrictive means to achieve that interest. Contrary to what its opponents claimed, the law does not give anyone a license to discriminate on the basis of religion; rather, it reinstates a time-honored judicial balancing test. Judges decide whether religious freedom—our “first freedom”—or the state interest prevails. No responsible advocate of religious freedom thinks that it ought to prevail against every possible countervailing claim, that every state interest ought to give way before it. We simply insist that religious freedom is an important consideration that ought to be taken into account.

The substance of the law

In the light of what happened in Indiana, Arkansas, and here in Georgia, it seems highly unlikely that any state legislature will pass a simple and straightforward version of the 1993 federal legislation. Opponents were all too effective in tying religious freedom to discrimination, even in the absence of any evidence that the federal law or its many state counterparts had ever effectively been used to license or justify discrimination. Unfortunately, the “fix” that lawmakers adopted to respond to these objections tends to sweep much too widely, making state and local anti-discrimination rules in effect trumps against any religious freedom claim. While certainly a permissible (if, I would argue, inadvisable) declaration of a compelling state interest, it appears to leave no room for certain sorts of religious freedom claims. Thus, for example, a church or other faith-based organization might wish to engage in mission-based hiring, employing only those willing to live up to certain creedal or behavioral standards. These religious hiring rights have long been acknowledged or accommodated in law, but could be described as “discrimination” by those unsympathetic to the standards or practices at issue. Without explicit provision for them in the law, these traditional religious hiring rights could be deprived any any sort of religious freedom defense.

Then there is, of course, the wedding industry, where some practitioners have absolutely no objection to serving gays in ordinary circumstances, but cannot in good conscience provide their services to a same-sex wedding ceremony. Their critics treat their services as public accommodations, akin to restaurants and hotels, and insist that there is absolutely no difference between the photographer who is happy to do a portrait of any individual or family, but not of any wedding ceremony, and the racist hotelier or restaurateur who refuses to serve African-Americans under any circumstances. In the first instance, this argument stretches the notion of public accommodation far beyond its traditional bounds. Furthermore, while the experience of African-Americans in the Jim Crow South certainly made it clear that the traditional right of a businessperson to serve whomever he or she pleases (an aspect of freedom of association) has to give way to the norm of non-discrimination in matters of race, it is far from clear that gays who seek wedding services are similarly seriously discommoded by the few bakers, photographers, or wedding planners who have religious scruples about same-sex marriage. Common sense tells you that there is a difference between being unable to find a place to stay or eat, or having to go around the corner or to the next town to find a wedding photographer. What’s more, many wedding-related businesses are, to say the least, “closely-held.” That means that exempting them from anti-discrimination laws in this limited instance—not, to repeat, in ordinary circumstances—rests on the solid constitutional ground of the recent Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case; the Court there held that family businesses, at least, enjoyed the protection of the First Amendment and the federal RFRA. Finally, at the very least both baking and photography can be treated as arts, hence as forms of expression. It has long been the understanding that the First Amendment prohibits government (or individuals using governmental authority) from compelling people to say what is not on their minds.

There is, in other words, a reasonably strong argument that the “fix” proposed in Georgia trenches on traditional freedoms of religion, association, and expression. While no one would argue that these freedoms are or should be absolute, they should not be casually or thoughtlessly trampled in an effort to conciliate the demands of one intense constituency. I leave it to the legislative drafters to find language that affirms both compelling norms—religious freedom and non-discrimination—and finds a way to combine them coherently. Surely we are not so unreasonable and inept that we cannot come up with language that accommodates religious liberty and assures gays and lesbians that they will neither be denied service in ordinary circumstances nor be too inconvenienced In their search for wedding services. (Indeed, there are “conscience clauses” from the medical field that may offer a good model here: those who have conscientious objections to, say, abortion, can be excused from participating in a medically necessary abortion, so long as someone else stands ready to help with the procedure.)

Making the case for a reasonable religious freedom law

This year, I think advocates of religious freedom legislation were taken somewhat by surprise by the scope and character of the opposition to them. Since religious freedom had almost always been an “apple pie” issue, they may have thought that, especially in a state that is generally both conservative and religious, opposition would be either nominal or relatively easily overcome. They didn’t reckon on the vociferousness of those who frequently misrepresented the proposal, on the almost complicitous supineness (or was it alacrity?) with which the media gave them a megaphone, and on the unwillingness of the business community to protect religious liberty, not to mention the enterprises and livelihoods of their much smaller brethren. Next year promises to be worse, not only because opponents of religious freedom legislation will be emboldened by their success this year, but because it is very likely that a narrowly-divided Supreme Court will hand down a decision finding a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, raising passions even higher.

Proponents of religious freedom can’t afford merely to be reactive. We have to start right away to lay the groundwork for success in next year’s legislative session. That means making a winsome case in public for the necessity of such legislation, not simply to protect those who conscientiously dissent from same-sex marriage, but also all those—especially members of minority religions—who in carrying out their religious duties find themselves on the wrong side of an otherwise neutral law. Those in the media who cover this issue must also be educated, again in a setting where the stakes are not high and they can feel free to ask questions and engage in the give-and-take of a conversation. That also means sitting down with legislators when things are relatively calm and patiently explaining the importance of religious freedom and the nuts and bolts of protecting it. Finally, that means putting business leaders on notice that if they criticize religious freedom legislation as unwelcoming in our state, they will be pointedly asked about the business they do in countries all over the world that do not respect human rights, let alone the rights of gays and lesbians.

Once the session begins, proponents of religious freedom legislation have to be prepared immediately to answer distortions of the bill’s provisions and purpose. They also have to be prepared to call out zealots on their side, demanding the same responsible behavior of their opponents.

I remain confident that a bill can and will pass, but it is unlikely to be a cakewalk. The arguments are on our side, but critics of the legislation command the high ground in the media.

The future of religious freedom

Abraham Lincoln once said, “In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.” Laws can be enacted, and then repealed. Even constitutional provisions can be repealed or reinterpreted. We cannot rest content that by the enactment of a law, we have genuinely and for the long term protected religious freedom.

More important than any law is “the culture,” by which I mean not only the arts, media, and education, but also the complex web of organizations and relationship that constitute “civil society” and the deeper sources in history and principle for public opinion. If these institutions, understandings, and “habits of the heart” do not support religious freedom, then no law purporting to protect it will stand for long.

Our long-term task is thus one of cultural restoration and reconstruction, in which politics plays only a small part. To be sure, laws and political controversies can offer so-called “teachable moments,” when lots of people are paying attention, but most of the teaching will be done in other, often more intimate and less fraught settings, like schools, churches, families, neighborhoods, and workplace relationships. And most of the teaching will not, strictly speaking, be about religious liberty.

Some have suggested that cultural and religious conservatives should be prepared for a “Benedict option,” a time of withdrawal from “the world” in order insularly to protect themselves, their families and communities, and their understanding from an inveterately hostile culture. I’m not yet prepared to urge my fellows down that path. I have more confidence that truth and nature will assert or reassert themselves. (I could make such an argument using the language of Christian theology, but would prefer in this venue not to talk about creation, evil, and God’s sovereignty.)

What we have to do is be attentive to building healthy families and communities, to be vigilant about telling the truth about ourselves and our relationships, to be open to respectful engagement with those who disagree with us, and to tell and promote stories in art, film, music, and literature that teach moral truths without being overtly “preachy.” Great art and great literature command the attention of those who encounter them. They nourish our minds and our souls. They provide the bases for fruitful conversations and friendships, even among those who happen at the moment to disagree.

This isn’t a “quick fix,” but rather the work of many lifetimes. We didn’t lose our way overnight. We won’t find our way back tomorrow.


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