So, today I did something I hadn’t done before. I attended an Executive Order signing ceremony.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon today issued an order to instruct officials in his state that the Supreme Court Obergefell v. Hodges ruling “shall be implemented across the executive branch of state government” immediately. I was extremely pleased that he went even further, and argued that it was fundamentally unfair that a LGBT couple could now get married, but at the same time could lose their job or not receive equal access in public services because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It is time, Nixon said, to add them to Missouri Non-Discrimination law. He’s right, as I’ll explain below.
Somewhere, on the other side of the heartland, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback was issuing a very different sort of executive order, one ostensibly protecting religious liberties of those who disagree with same sex marriages. Many have observed that the latter seems to be a solution in search of a problem, and Barbara Shelley of the Kansas City Star notes the stark difference in the message being sent to businesses and LGBT employees.
What is striking about all of this is how we’ve blurred the line between private expression of religion, on the one hand, and the public/civic realm, on the other. So many people are getting this wrong, both churchy types who disagreed with the Supreme Court, and others in the public realm who seem to want to allow the argument more weight than it probably deserves.
This was made perfectly clear today when, during the Nixon ceremony, after he answered several questions from the press, a Pentecostal pastor (Rev. LeRoy Glover of the Pentacostal Church of God in Christ) stood up to voice his objections. Not only did he (wrongly) suggest all Christians were in disagreement with Obergefell (and I was there, in my stole and cross, to witness my support, for instance), but further his stated objections clearly misunderstood the line between private expression of religion and the necessary equality of all in the public realm.
Glover expressed concern that churches and pastors would be forced to bless same sex unions (they won’t be), and he was concerned that a Christian baker might be forced to sell a same sex couple a wedding cake (and perhaps they might be, and arguably should be). Lets explore this a little more:
What is freedom of religion? It is the right of anyone to belong to any faith (or no faith) they choose, to assemble as they wish, to pray the way they want to pray. As long as churches/synagogues/mosques/temples/humanist societies operate in that sphere, they ought to be free to do so unencumbered (so long as they’re not directly harming another person in the process). No one is challenging this. No one has ever forced any church or pastor to participate against their conscience in a marriage ceremony or to sign a marriage license. That doesn’t change with this ruling, nor will it. Ever. And I would fight any effort to compel such a thing (just as I would, as an internal church matter, reject any requirement for PCUSA pastors/churches to participate in any marriage against their conscience).
But that is the private sphere of religion. Once people of faith or religious entities begin to operate in the public sphere, they must be required to follow the law like anyone else.
What is not freedom of religion? The right of people to claim a “deeply held religious belief” and, because of that belief, be allowed to treat GLBT people differently than anyone else who would come into their business, or to their clerk’s desk at the county courthouse, or what have you. That is, instead, religiously-sanctioned public discrimination. It is the very opposite of promoting equal rights for all in the public realm.
There can be no religiously-sanctioned exemption to the laws everyone else has to obey, no freedom to discriminate due to “sincerely held religious beliefs”. Faith does not become an opt-out clause when it comes to equal accommodation under the law.
An example of this: churches can choose whomever they deem right to be their clergy. If they say women’t can’t be ordained, or GLBT folk, or people of color, or people in wheelchairs, or whatever. That’s their right. (Assuming the decision is based on a “sincerely held religious belief,” rather than arbitrary reasons) But when they open a cafe, they have to obey health laws, they can’t decide whom to serve based on race or gender or ethnicity. Nor should they be able to reject people based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. Once they open a public, for profit bakery, they can’t decide to serve Christians only, and exclude Jews; they can’t serve just white folk, and not hispanics.
But that’s not an encroachment on religious liberty. And its a fallacy to claim so. This is a requirement that all who operate in the public realm treat everyone fairly, equally, justly.
But these claims have fanned fears that this law which grants civic access to marriage licenses to GLBT brothers and sisters will somehow REQUIRE religious people to participate. And there’s nothing here to suggest that it will. The government has never required catholic priests to marry a Jewish couple. I’ve never been forced to sign the wedding license of anyone I found to be unfit based on my church’s teachings or constitution.
In the private sphere of religion, Obergefell has no impact. None.
But, today, people really can fire someone for being GLBT, or can deny them access to all sorts of services. That is wrong. For this reason, Nixon is right: there’s a real need to add these words (gender identity and sexual orientation) to anti-discrimination statutes.
But we are now seeing Governors (and attorney generals etc) suggest in rather amazing language that clerks might not have to issue these licenses, falling back on their deeply held religious beliefs.
Think about that for a second. Public officials must not be free to decide in that way. What about a racist cop who is so because of their “sincerely held religious belief” in the inferiority of black people? What about the firefighter who refuses to respond to a call at a gay couples’ house? How is that any different?
The issuing of licenses is a basic governmental function. SCOTUS ruled all GLBT couples have access to that function. Any person of faith who chooses to work in these professions must ensure equal treatment. This is really dangerous. And it is all because of this haphazard treatment of the spheres of religion and the public, and more so called religious-freedom jiggery-pokery. We need to ensure that this distinction is clearly noted, to provide broad and honest religious freedom in the private sphere of religious practice, and to add the words to non-discrimination statutes so that all citizens–regardless of race, religion, age, worldly condition, sexual orientation or gender identity, etc–can have the same rights and privileges all others enjoy.
(And yes, Rocky, I know this is too long….)