Why Mississippi’s Religious Liberties Law Is More Nuanced Than You Think
Do you think that a wedding florist should be allowed to deny service to a gay couple just because they’re gay?
Do you think that a Jewish photographer should be allowed to refuse photography services to a Neo-Nazi group just because of the nature of that group?
Do you think that a store — on religious grounds — should be allowed to refuse insurance coverage for birth control?
Do you think that an advertising agency — on contrary religious grounds — should be allowed to refuse to help that store’s owners explain their position?
If you have different answers for these four questions, then you appreciate the complexity of Mississippi’s controversial “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” (HB 1523), which was just signed into law; of Georgia’s similar “Free Exercise Protection Act” (HB 757), which that state’s governor vetoed; and of similar legislation.
Mississippi’s law claims to protect people, and groups of people, who act based on a “sincerely held” belief or “moral conviction” in any of three hotly debated tenets:
- Marriage is only between one man and one woman.
- Sex should be confined to such a one-man-one-woman marriage.
- People have only one gender (“sex”), the biological one with which they were born.
Opponents to the law say it legalizes discrimination against, for example, gay couples.
Proponents counter that it protects religious freedoms.
In my opinion, both claims are right (though that doesn’t mean that I think both sides have equal merit). The Mississippi law generates such vehemence precisely because it pits one cherished American value against another.
In this country we believe in equality before the law. We have already established, for instance, that it’s illegal to set out to hire men instead of equally qualified women, no matter how much an employer may prefer working with men.
In this country we also believe in freedom of religion. We have already established, for instance, that the Church can bar women from certain positions of leadership, no matter how qualified they might otherwise be.
Or to look at it differently, the opponents to Mississippi’s law say that, in this case, equality trumps religious freedom. Proponents say that these religious freedoms trump equality.
And here, I think, is the real issue: when these two supreme values collide, which one do we, as a society, choose? And why?
Unfortunately, the public conversation plays out differently.
Proponents double down, defending their religious position, for instance, that marriage is, was, and always shall be between one man and one women. (I think they’re wrong, but that isn’t the point.) They ignore the fact that similar religious arguments were advanced in the 19th century to defend slavery. And they ignore the fact that even Christian-owned stores are not allowed to discriminate against women, even though the Church is.
Opponents also double down, defending their position, for instance, that a marriage between two men is just as valid as a marriage between a man and a women. They ignore the fact that they might experience supreme discomfort if they had to work in support of the KKK. (The KKK probably takes offense at my position, but that isn’t the point.) And they ignore the fact that laws already permit religious gender-based discrimination.
So I have a challenge:
If you defend this law, why do you think that these particular religious beliefs are more important than equality? That is, how is an anti-gay-marriage stance different than, say, 19th-century pro-slavery religious beliefs or, more generally, other gender-based religious beliefs?
If you oppose this law, why do you think that these particular religious beliefs should be squashed? That is, how is forcing people to support gay marriage different than, say, forcing people to work on their sabbath, or forcing people to support other things they don’t like, such as perhaps, the KKK?
And in the meantime, as we continue to discuss this law, perhaps we can at least tread softly out of respect for people who disagree with us.
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- And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning (2010, St. Martin's Press)
- In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language (2004, NYU Press)
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