Ask a conservative Christian about the President of the United States, and you're likely to hear that Barack Obama has been waging a "war on religion" since pretty much the moment he took office in 2009. As laughable as the assertion may be, there's little doubt that many have come to believe it, spurred on of course by opportunistic politicians and right-wing talk show hosts whose stock in trade is the creation of fear and resentment. In response, those conservative Christians have mounted a little war of their own, fought in the courts and state legislatures. The enemies include not just the Obama administration but gay people, women who want control of their own bodies, and an evolving modern morality that has left them behind.
In the process, they have made a rather spectacular claim, though not explicitly. What they seek is nothing short of a different definition of American citizenship granted only to highly religious people, and highly religious Christians in particular. They are demanding that our laws stake out for them a kind of Citizenship Platinum, allowing them an exemption from any law or obligation they'd prefer to disregard. They would refashion the First Amendment in their image.
Last week saw a number of new developments in the effort to create this elevated status for religious people, as bills seeking to enshrine discrimination against gay couples moved forward in two states. A bill in Kansas would explicitly allow both businesses and government to discriminate against gay couples in pretty much any way they wanted. A movie theater could turn gay couples away at the door, or a paramedic could refuse to treat a gay person having a heart attack, and they'd be immune from prosecution or lawsuits. After passing the Kansas state house overwhelmingly, the bill died in the state senate, in a brief (though likely temporary) moment of sanity.
A bill in Arizona did better, passing both houses, and it now awaits Governor Jan Brewer's signature. This one was written more broadly, without the direct focus on gay couples, but its effects would be the same. It grants to any person, organization or corporation a nearly unlimited right to assert their "sincerely held" religious beliefs as a shield against lawsuits for discrimination.
Similar bills are pending in a number of conservative states; this won't be the last we hear of them. And the Supreme Court will soon hear the case of Hobby Lobby, the retail chain that would like to be exempt from some of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act because its owners are Christians, and therefore they should be able to select the provisions they'll abide by and not bother with those they find religiously objectionable.
The implications couldn't be clearer. Let's consider the put-upon Christian florists of Arizona, who might be subjected to the unspeakable horror of taking a gay couple's money. What if one of those florists decided that since being born again through Christ is the one and only path to heaven, selling flowers to Jews or Muslims or Catholics would violate his deeply felt religious beliefs? Would he then be free to put up a sign in his window saying, "We only serve Protestants here"? According to the Arizona law, he would, regardless of what that pesky Civil Rights Act says. Or what if the owner of an accounting firm decided that since his religion places men above women, all his female employees will be paid half of what he pays male employees for doing the same job? It's his religious belief, after all.
Anyone could say that almost any belief they have springs directly from their faith and their reading of scripture, and the state would be required to abide by it. Your faith tells you not to obey laws against discrimination? Well, maybe mine tells me that paying taxes is an offense to God. And my neighbor is a biblical literalist, so when his teenage son mouthed off to him, he arranged for the boy to be stoned to death, just like the Lord instructs quite clearly in Deuteronomy 18 and Leviticus 20. Surely we can't convict him of murder, since he was only following his sincere religious beliefs.
You might say, well, those beliefs are ridiculous. Maybe they are. And maybe I find your opinions about gay people ridiculous. But up until now, neither one of us has had to have our own liberty compromised because of what the other believed, because we defined the First Amendment's free exercise clause through religious practice. The government can't tell you how to worship your god, and it can't do things that make it difficult for you to worship as you'd like.
But now, conservatives are pushing a much broader conception of religious freedom, one that extends beyond religious practice to virtually anything a religious person does. But it's when you take your religious practices outside of your own faith, your own beliefs, and your own practice and start applying them to other people that you lose the special privileges that religion is accorded. As an old saying has it, my right to swing my fist ends precisely where your nose begins.
Any Christians who want to can believe that gay people are sinful and wicked, or that gay marriage is a terrible thing. What they can't do is use those beliefs as a get-out-of-jail-free card that gives them permission to break the law or escape civil liability when they harm other people.
Up until now, the distinction between religious practice and the things religious people do when they enter the secular world has worked pretty well. Anti-discrimination laws don't mean that a rabbi has to conduct a wedding for two Baptists. Religious organizations can hire only people of their own faith. But once you enter into other realms, like commerce, you have to obey the laws that govern those realms.
If we grant religious people the kind of elevated citizenship conservatives are now demanding, where the special consideration given to religious practice is extended to anything a religious person does, the results could be truly staggering. Why stop at commerce? If things like employment law and anti-discrimination laws don't apply to religious people, what about zoning laws, or laws on domestic abuse, or laws in any other realm?
The supporters of these laws, and of Hobby Lobby, argue that religious people shouldn't have to put aside their beliefs when they act in the secular world. "It's alien to me that a business owner can’t reflect his faith in his business," said one Republican Arizona legislator. But when your business puts you in contact with people who don't share your faith, putting aside your religion is precisely what you have to do, if "reflecting" that religion means violating the law.
For many years, conservatives would argue that they didn't really object to equal rights for gay people, they were just against "special rights." In practice, what they meant by "special rights" were things like the right not to be fired from your job or evicted from your home because of your sexuality, rights that weren't special at all. But today, religious conservatives are demanding truly special rights for themselves. They want one set of laws that applies to everyone else, and another set that applies only to the religious. Or more precisely, they want religious people—but no one else—to be able to pick and choose which laws apply to them, and which they'd prefer to ignore. That's a twisted version of the liberty the First Amendment was supposed to guarantee.