We are a proudly rebellious country. We fought a Revolutionary War to kick the king, sovereign, master, and lord out of our affairs. Nobody can dictate what “We the People” must believe.
It wasn’t just the Church of England we rebuffed. When the Puritans arrived, they were so happy with their newfound religious freedom that they kept it all to themselves. Their philosophy was: “I’m free to practice my religion, and you’re free to practice mine,” as the satirical songwriter Roy Zimmerman puts it. In escaping one tyranny, they established another.
A century and a half later, our founders wanted no part of the “tyranny of the majority” (as John Adams and James Madison put it) that they had witnessed in the theocratic colonies. They deliberately created a godless Constitution mandating “no religious test” for public office and prohibiting Congress from making any law “respecting an Establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Appropriate for a nation of dissent, we were the first nation in history to separate state and church. We can believe what we want, not what the government prefers.
Observed Anne Gaylor, founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF): “There can be no religious freedom without the freedom to dissent.”
Two hundred years later, along comes a curious law, the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. But what is it that needs to be “restored”? The freedoms of the First Amendment are still intact, so what has changed?
The answer is progress. We abolished slavery. Women can now vote. Birth control, miscegenation, abortion, and gay marriage are now legal. While we have advanced, the descendants of the Puritans — who still think we should bow before a king — are stuck in place, dishonoring the secular rebellion from which our country sprang. The mainly white Christian majority that used to dictate to others now finds its authority increasingly diminished and ignored as it shrinks to become just one part of a larger fabric of diversity.
RFRA does not restore freedom. It is a backlash attempt to restore privilege. It is a tool of oppression, not freedom.
A hammer is designed to drive nails, but it can also pull them out. The RFRA, which was ostensibly marketed as a tool to pull out the nails of governmental burdens on religion, is instead being used to drive the nails of religious persecution back into our society.
The hypocrisy is obvious. The promulgators of religious narrow-mindedness say: “The government should not discriminate against me when I discriminate!” The religious right complains that it is being harassed, when it is actually the persecutor. Sandi Villarreal recently wrote in the magazine Sojourners: “When you’re accustomed to religious exceptionalism, pluralism can feel like persecution.”
Modern Puritans still married to dogma resist progress. For example, if the Bible says homosexuality is wrong, they do not understand that it’s the Bible that’s wrong, not homosexuality.
If you are one of these righteous conservatives, you are free to discriminate privately. You can exclude outsiders from worship services. You can refuse to marry a godless person or to shop at a store owned by a “heathen.” You can vote only for Southern Baptists.
But if you work for the government or for a business that deals with the public (and is therefore subject to the Civil Rights Act), you are not free to discriminate on the job. I don’t shop at Hobby Lobby, because I find the company’s unequal treatment of female employees reprehensible, but if I did shop there, the store couldn’t deny me service based on my nonbelief. Under the Civil Rights Act, a place of public accommodation cannot advertise “No Jews/Black/Atheists Allowed.” Nor should it say “No Gays Allowed.” That would be intrinsically un-American.
If you want to “send a message” of disapproval, then do it through your sermons, books, and radio and TV programs. Put your intolerant slogans on T-shirts and hand out fliers at a public forum. But don’t treat people as less than free and equal citizens when they walk into your store or government office. If you discriminate against others, they might reciprocate. Even Jesus, who had a rather rudimentary grasp of morality, seemed to appreciate the ancient and universal concept of the Golden Rule.
We already have ample religious freedom in this country. Let’s use it to remove the nails of bigotry, not hammer them back in.
Dan Barker, copresident of the FFRF, will be part of an interfaith discussion, “Religious Freedom in Trouble?”, at 6 p.m. Thursday at the National Constitution Center. To register, visit www.constitutioncenter/debate, or call 215-409-6700.