Religious Freedom vs. Gay Rights: Can We All Get Along?

Even if some people are gay, and even if some of these gay people are married, we can still all get along. The framework is already in place under the principles of freedom of religion in our own Constitution.
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Gay marriage has just been legalized all across the nation by the United States Supreme Court in the landmark ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges.

Left wing liberals are jumping for joy. Right wing religious conservatives are horrified. So where does this leave us as a people? Well, let's see if we can sort through some of the fall-out.

First and foremost, it is important to emphasize that religious conservatives need not be alarmed by this decision because your views remain fully protected by our Constitution. Many of you believe that marriage can be legitimate only if between one man and one woman. This view was articulated by the Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott when he said that "marriage was defined by God," and "no man can redefine it."

Many of you also believe that gay marriage is morally wrong. This view was expressed by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, when he said that the notion is "profoundly immoral and unjust" that "two people of the same sex can constitute a marriage."

Don't worry, this case did not change any of that and thus you are still perfectly free to hold these beliefs. In fact, the majority opinion in this case directly addressed this very point in resounding language: "Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned."

Wow. That's powerful stuff.

The Court went on to say very clearly that your right to your religious beliefs and your traditional way of life are expressly protected by our Constitution: "The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles [of traditional marriage] that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the [traditional] family structure they have long revered."

This language should be deeply comforting to religious conservatives as it reaffirms that your beliefs of being opposed to gay marriage are indeed fully protected. Phew! Religious conservatives can breathe a sigh of relief. You are not under attack, there is no threat to your beliefs or your way of life, and thus there is no need for you to take up arms and charge into battle.

What the Court did here was merely to say that these profound rights enshrined in our Constitution to believe as you wish and to conduct your way of life in accordance with your beliefs apply not only to religious conservatives, but these rights apply to other people as well. The ruling simply stands for the proposition that if you happen to be opposed to gay marriage, that's perfectly fine, and if you happen to be in favor of gay marriage, that's perfectly fine too. It's up to you. This, in fact, is the essence of what religious freedom is all about (though the Court's ruling was based upon the fundamental right of marriage as opposed to freedom of religion). At the end of the day, the effect of the legal aspect of the ruling is simply that the government cannot outlaw either type of marriage.

So what does this mean for people living in the real world out in society? Can we all get along with each other if we have different beliefs?

Hm. Let's see here. Well, the freedom of religion enshrined in our Constitution already gives us the framework for getting along despite having religious differences. The key is simply to honor the principle that it must be a two-way street. The first part of the two-way street is easy for everyone. Our own beliefs are protected and others cannot impose their beliefs upon us. We all agree with that one. But the second part is less easy for some people. The second part is that, by the same token, we must reciprocate by not seeking to impose our beliefs upon others.

Uh oh. That's the hard part. It is this second part that is difficult for some people and we already see people struggling with it, mainly religious conservatives. These folks are fine with the first part of the two-way street, and the first part for them is not under challenge at all as no one is seeking to require religious conservatives to marry people of their own gender against their will. No, of course not. Nor is anyone seeking to prevent these religious conservatives from marrying traditionally as they please. No, of course not. These religious conservatives are entirely free to practice their own beliefs and there is no threat whatsoever of taking away any of their rights to do so.

But some of these religious conservatives find it very difficult to abide by the second part of the two-way street of reciprocating to others. They are not content to allow others to practice beliefs that differ from their own. Instead, these religious conservatives seek to impose their own beliefs upon others by preventing others from consummating gay marriages. It is this second part of the two-way street that is causing all the trouble.

We see this manifested in various ways, such as when local officials cite their religious beliefs and refuse to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. The rights of these officials are not in any way in jeopardy as they are free to marry traditionally as they choose, but yet they deny the rights of other people to marry when these other people happen to have different beliefs. Withholding marriage licenses is obviously outrageous as we would never stand for this if officials refused to issue marriage licenses on other religious grounds, such as to interfaith couples, interracial couples, or couples with out-of-wedlock children.

We have also seen this problem when businesses refuse to serve gay customers, such as the pizza parlor that refused to serve pizza to gay people, florists that have refused to provide flowers for gay weddings, and bakeries that have refused to make wedding cakes for gay marriages. We have seen it in the so called "religious freedom" laws as well, which should be named more accurately "religious imposition" laws. The initial federal religious freedom law was conceived with the good intention of protecting people with minority religious beliefs, namely Native Americans, but then this law was shrewdly twisted into laws designed to permit people of the majority religion (conservative Christians) to discriminate against people with different views (gay people).

These are all examples of failing to honor the second part of the two-way street. The people who deny services are not at risk themselves of having their own beliefs taken away in any manner. They are free to practice their own beliefs as they desire. But they are opposed to the beliefs of other people, so they seek to deny goods and services to these other people who happen to have different beliefs.

Such denial of service to people who do not share the religious belief system of the majority is entirely inconsistent with the fundamental principal of freedom of religion. The whole point of freedom of religion is that people should be free to believe whatever they wish, even if their beliefs are different from the majority, and they should not suffer discrimination as a result of their minority views. Delivering flowers to a gay person, or serving pizza to a gay person, does not make you gay. It also does not mean that you condone being gay in any way.

Denying service represents a breakdown of the two-way street of respecting the rights of others, and indeed a breakdown of our free and fair society. Just think what would happen if we moved away from the freedom of religion contemplated in our Constitution and instead toward a system of these so-called "religious freedom" laws that allow religious observers to deny service to anyone based upon their own religious beliefs. We would have chaos. We already have local officials denying marriage licenses, some denying marriage licenses to both straight and gay couples, which is a clear example of the breakdown of the functions of the state.

But multiply this exponentially if it were adopted throughout society. Mail carriers could skip delivering mail to people they suspected of holding impure beliefs. State officials could deny issuing driver's licenses. Insurance companies could deny insurance. Landlords could deny housing. Hospitals could deny care. Restaurants could deny diners. Schools could deny students. Check-out clerks could refuse to check people out.

And it is not just gay people who could be denied service, but it could be anyone deemed unsatisfactory by the particular religious observer, such as anyone who has not been baptized, who fails to dress in a certain way, or who eats pork.

Where would it end?

It is, of course, ridiculous. This is not who we are as Americans.

So given all of our differences, can we all get along?

Yes, we can all get along. Even if some people are gay, and even if some of these gay people are married, we can still all get along. The framework is already in place under the principles of freedom of religion in our own Constitution. Freedom of religion is a cornerstone of what makes America great and what enables us to all get along despite our very different beliefs. We just need to be mindful that it is a two-way street. All we need is just a small amount of religious tolerance to refrain from imposing our own beliefs upon others, and to allow others to practice their own beliefs freely.

It's really not very much to ask.

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