The Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s presentation on Religious Liberty and the Common Good, held on May 23, very effectively made its key point that religious liberty is vital to a free and virtuous society. Its first panel, reviewed in an earlier article, discussed the principles of classical religious liberty, the right to disagree about ultimate things, which is currently threatened by the idea of inclusivism growing out of the social revolution of the 1960s. In the second panel, Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation, John Inazu, law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, and Kristen Waggoner of the Alliance Defending Freedom legal service organization, discussed the practical benefits of religious liberty to society.
Anderson said that religious freedom is valuable to society because it protects other freedoms. There are basic rights, which protect human goods, and instrumental rights, which contribute to basic goods. The right to life is a basic, or intrinsic right, as is the right to bodily integrity. Free speech and property rights are instrumental rights, contributing to human flourishing. Religious liberty is both intrinsic and instrumental. It protects “the basic good of religion.” It means that we are free in human law to respond to God and act on religious commitment according to our understanding of his commands. He said that one of the greatest social benefits of religious action is that religious communities do best in helping the poor. It might also be noted that the most important question for any human government is how it relates to what is ultimately right and wrong. Here religious freedom involves the right to decline action believed sinful or immoral. In this regard, Anderson noted that if the state can attack conscience, it can also attack speech or property.
Professor Inazu said that in addressing religious liberty we should aim for a “confident pluralism.” We can be serious about religious commitments that have “great depth,” but we need pluralism because of differences. He said a problem in the current conflict over religious liberty is that pluralism has been a bad word with Evangelicals. While pluralism can indeed be mistaken for or become relativism, we “should give up power games,” he said.
In answer to the question of whether religious liberty is a “veil for discrimination,” Kristen Waggoner said that sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) laws are not used to stop discrimination, but to attack religious merchants. Finding a reasonable alternative to requiring accommodation of homosexual behavior is not at all comparable to the discrimination of Jim Crow laws. Florists who refer to other florists who provide the same service should not be penalized, she maintained, and there are no cases of homosexual customers being denied service because they are homosexual. All cases involve requiring people of faith to violate their consciences.
A vital point on this current intense controversy is that conscientious objection, which is grounded in religious liberty, is no different with homosexuality than with anything else. It is crucial to see the difference between persons and their behavior. Bakers, photographers, bed and breakfast owners, and others whose religious liberty is infringed on by SOGI laws are not objecting to homosexuals as persons, but to behavior that is believed to be evil. Anderson said we can take an historical analogy, and use abortion as an example. Doctors shouldn’t be penalized because they are pro-life. Their freedom to decline to perform or be involved in abortions is protected in law. “Freedom must be a two way street.” Bakers should be free to bake or not to bake cakes for homosexual ceremonies, he said.
Inazu said that the right to disagree is fundamental to the constitutional order, and thus it is fundamental to religious freedom. Anderson expanded on this to say that religious freedom in particular protects the right of all persons to pursue the truth about God as they understand him. The right to sincere belief, and to live out those beliefs in personal conduct, means more civic harmony, Anderson said. Paradoxically, the right to differ means less real conflict in society. But as religious commitment dwindles, the result is “atomistic individuals.” This means both a loss of a sense of community, and the need for more state regulation of individual conduct.
Waggoner was asked why she “goes to the mat” for religious liberty. She said that religious liberty protects “the vulnerable, women and minorities,” and protects other civil liberties. Contemporary opponents of religious liberty maintain that only the right to believe is absolute, and freedom of religious action (or religiously based inaction) may be restricted. But all regimes have the freedom to believe, Waggoner said, while not all regimes have the free exercise of religion to act on those beliefs. She said that all citizens are needed to support religious liberty. This is important to making the legal principle of religious liberty culturally plausible. Each generation must struggle to tell the story of religious liberty, and preserve it, she said.
As an example of this, Anderson said that the Catholic Church did the best job through its adoption agencies of placing hard to place older children. Just as Archbishop William E. Lori noted in the ELRC’s earlier panel that Catholic schools in inner cities principally serve non-Catholic children in poor areas, and serve them as an exercise of religion, so Anderson noted that Catholic adoption agencies, while an excellent service, are also an exercise of religion. They must provide children for adoption in accordance with Catholic religious principles, and thus children must be placed with married couples consisting of one man and one woman. Faced with state requirements to provide children to homosexual couples, Catholic adoption agencies have been forced to close. Children have been hurt by the government’s commitment to the ideology of the sexual revolution, Anderson said. The next issue, he said, will be the non-profit status of Catholic schools. Again, he noted, the biggest losers are children.
Inazu then observed that the free exercise of religion is a very diminished right at the present time. It is not a strong defense against laws and policies that are indifferent or hostile to the commitments of believers. As another example of how the wider society suffers from this loss of religious freedom, he pointed out that InterVarsity Christian Fellowship was one of the best groups in improving social relations on campus; its expulsion from some campuses hurts the campus environment. Having a society in which disagreements are legal results in a better society. The alternative is a state imposed ideology, Inazu said.
But while there remain many Americans committed to freedom of religious action, there is also now a significant part of the public, especially among the political and cultural leaders of society, which wants to restrict it, and their attack is very wide ranging. Inazu said that the current religious liberty situation gives us a lifetime of issues to work through.Google+