Government should protect freedom, not enforce belief

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Arkansas House Bill 1228, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, doesn’t actually say anything about gay rights. What it says is, “A state action shall not substantially burden a person’s right to exercise of religion … unless it is demonstrated that … (it) is essential to further a compelling governmental interest; and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

Of course gay rights is what led to the bill and is what everyone is talking about. But the more important issue is one fundamental to any society: To what degree should majority values be enforced on a minority?

In this case, what once was the majority view – marriage involves only a man and a woman – rapidly has become the minority view. And yet that view still is held by many people with sincere religious beliefs. The most famous example is photographer Elaine Huguenin, a Christian who was fined $7,000 after declining to take photographs at a lesbian wedding ceremony. That fine was upheld by the New Mexico Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, says the standard for protecting religious belief has been lowered and needs to be raised. Arkansas’ bill is similar to a federal law signed by President Clinton in 1993 and ones passed by 20 states. President Obama voted for Illinois’ as a state senator – though Illinois also has stronger protections for homosexuals. Most of these laws weren’t related to gay rights at the time they were passed, according to the fact-checking site Politifact.

Indiana, which recently passed a similar law, is really feeling the heat, but so is Arkansas, and it may get hotter. On Monday, protestors chanted “Shame on you!” at a stone-faced Ballinger as he left a committee room. The gay rights group Human Rights Campaign published a full-page ad in the San Jose Mercury News, which serves Silicon Valley, saying Arkansas is “closed for business due to discrimination.” Walmart and officials with Acxiom have opposed the bill.

A little empathy – and a little less shouting – might be in order here. If you are not gay, imagine how you might feel had you been subjected to ridicule since childhood and if the state had passed an amendment banning gay marriage in 2004? You might be wary of any law you think is aimed at you. And for those who say House Bill 1228 is legalized bigotry, would you want the government forcing you to participate in a ceremony that violates your beliefs? Then why do you want that to happen to Elaine Huguenin?

In a committee meeting on Monday, Rep. David Whitaker, D-Little Rock, asked if the bill could include a non-discrimination amendment. Ballinger said the issue should be debated and considered in a separate bill.

That would be good. It’s a difficult balancing act, but the law must try to protect people’s right to pursue happiness at the same time it protects other people’s right to believe and act as their consciences direct. Probably more time should be taken to consider how that’s done, and in fact that may be happening.

In 2004, I was one of the 25 percent of Arkansans who voted against the state’s anti-gay marriage amendment. I did so because government should not “define” marriage or stick its nose into how two people live their lives.

But I also support the intent of this bill. So I guess it comes down to this: Two people ought to be able to live how they want to live, but the government shouldn’t make another person take pictures of it.

The older I get, the more I’m convinced that while we say we believe in freedom, we don’t mean it. Apparently, it’s a fundamental aspect of human nature to use government to force people to agree with us. At its worse, it’s truly terrible, as history has shown. More often, it results in a slow erosion of freedom – sometimes in one direction, sometimes the other, but ultimately to the detriment of all.

House Bill 1228 is the latest battle in this culture war – a war usually framed as involving two sides – those who want the government to enforce conservative personal beliefs, and those who want it to enforce liberal personal beliefs.

There is a third side – we who want the government to focus on protecting freedom, including for those with whom we disagree.

Join our side. All are welcome.

16 thoughts on “Government should protect freedom, not enforce belief

  1. Good column. I’m not so sure it is just a culture war. It may be more of a religious war – a war by anti-Christian militants who want Christians to leave their Biblical views behind them the moment they walk out their door in the morning.

  2. Thank you, Ken. But I understand both. Should someone be refused services because they are gay? My initial response is, no. But should the government force someone to attend a ceremony that conflicts with their religious belief? No. It’s the age-old tension.

  3. This is not about “attending a ceremony that conflicts with their religious belief”… This is about a business open to the public deciding who they will serve and who they will not citing something so vague as their own personal religious beliefs. Suppose a florist refuses to provide their services to a black man marrying a white woman with the argument that their religion tells them that inter-racial marriage is immoral. Are you okay with that too?

  4. Adam, does one person have a right to someone else’s labor? Maintaining one’s own freedom means allowing other people the freedom to do things which we might not approve of, as long as he is not taking someone else’s stuff nor harming him physically.

  5. Adam, I think case law would prevent that from happening. Have you read the bill? The state has the right to intervene when there is a “compelling governmental interest.” There’s a mountain of case law saying preventing racial discrimination is a compelling governmental interest.

    And no, I would not be OK with that circumstance, and neither would most people. If a florist refused service based on race, the publicity would put them out of business.

    Clearly, society’s views have changed on gay marriage, too. Increasingly, a florist who refuses to serve a gay couple will face economic hardship based on the public making voluntary decisions to go somewhere else. You’ve won. I’ve got no problem with societal pressures being used to encourage people to believe a certain way. Apple CEO Tim Cook is perfectly free to take time away from exploiting Chinese workers to lecture us about being socially responsible.

    I think the bill is overly broad, but it is not based on an unreasonable concern. I just have a problem with government enforcing belief. I don’t want the government doing it to you or me or anyone else. It’s something we all ought to be wary of, regardless of where you come down on the florist issue.

  6. Freedom and discrimination have always been two issues that our country has struggled with. Sexual orientation aside, although to me it is the same bigotry, not long ago, there were those same types of folks labeling themselves “Christians” that didn’t believe African Americans were worthy of admission to their establishments. Saying discrimination is part of your religious freedom doesn’t make it right. It is an argument that is filled with fear and hatred. Last time I read the Bible, that was not what Jesus preached.

  7. Unfortunately, Steve, in post-Christian America societal pressures are pretty much going in the wrong direction. It appears that absent another Great Awakening that it will become increasingly more difficult to live as a Christian in this country. Of course, Christ Jesus told us to expect to be persecuted.

    And as Isaac Watts wrote in a hymn:

    “Must I be carried to the skies
    On flow’ry beds of ease,
    While others fought to win the prize,
    And sailed through bloody seas?

    Are there no foes for me to face?
    Must I not stem the flood?
    Is this vile world a friend to grace,
    To help me on to God?”

  8. Hi, Melanie. Thanks for reading. My question is, is that the issue? Do we make constitutional decisions based on our opinions of what’s inside people’s hearts, and how they compare to people 50 years ago? Or do we ask ourselves, “What’s the proper role of government here?”

    This is a balance, and it’s a hard one.

  9. Ken, you and I both would agree that, if that’s the case, it’s a battle that should be fought in a lot of places – but as little as possible through government.

  10. I understood your premise. I guess that is something that has never been defined well in this country, or any other that I can think of for that matter. Since many of the founding fathers were slave owners, was the proper role of government not to interfere with that practice? Many thought so for a very long time, even after de facto slavery was abolished. The defining of the proper role of the government is a very slippery slope and one that shouldn’t repeat a history of discrimination.

  11. Weird, I just tried to post something but it looks like it didn’t go through. It was incredibly eloquent, pithy and full of insight… oh well, here’s the re-write.

    The gist was this… try this example on for size. A restaurant owner says ‘my religious beliefs mandate that a woman who is out in public must have her head covered. Since you are not wearing a hijab, I cannot serve you.’

    Everybody okay with that one? B/c unless you want to write in the law that only Christians can use religion as a pretext to deny service, then anybody can do this… Muslim, Jew, Scientologist, Druid, you name it.

    And by the way, if the government’s role is not to prevent discrimination when possible, then what on earth is it for? This is not about controlling how someone thinks or believes, but it is about saying that if you run a business open to the public you can’t decide to not serve certain people b/c you don’t approve of their sexual orientation. It doesn’t seem like we’re asking for a lot here.

  12. When a business is on private property I have no problem if they don’t want to provide service to me because I am a Christian. It is their property, after all.

    Also, if the federal government would butt out of the marriage issue and allow the states to handle it, as well
    as other issues such as abortion(as our governmental system was designed to work), then these cultural
    issues would be nowhere near the big deals that they have become.

  13. Adam, we can create examples for the rest of the afternoon. Should a Christian pastor be required to perform a gay wedding ceremony in violation of his beliefs?

    Seems like we could at least try to accommodate everyone without creating a rule that everyone must behave a certain way, or the government will put them out of business.

  14. These are the same tired arguments used to justify institutionalized racism and oppression of minorities that have dotted this country’s history. Just substituting a few words here and it could be like it was the 50s and the argument was over segregation and voting rights. Let the states decide, federal government butt out!

    Your views are showing why there is a role for the federal government… to ensure the rights of minorities. Should the federal government have butted out in 1957? The logic is relevant here… one group of people can’t tell another that they shouldn’t be allowed to get married b/c it somehow goes against their own religious beliefs. How does 2 guys getting married negatively impact your marriage? Obviously, it doesn’t… and the one bright spot here is that this way of thinking is quickly becoming a vestige of the past. Even most millenial conservatives at this point are in favor of marriage equality.

    And, by the way, are poor Christian ministers being forced to perform gay weddings right now in Arkansas… or anywhere else for that matter?

  15. I want government out of marriage completely. I think it’s ridiculous to have to get a piece of paper from the state to get married. It’s not like you are applying for a business license to form a relationship with your spouse.

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