Three years ago, I went to an interfaith meeting at Peoria’s Islamic Foundation, where an evangelical pastor, a Presbyterian minister and elected officials all spoke on Americans’ freedom to worship, and apart from all of their insightful words, the turnout was inspiring: The Monday-night crowd numbered about 1,000, there to share their love, mutual respect and joy at recognizing the many ways to worship.
The audience ranged from millennials with tattoos, Mormon missionaries and a U.S. Attorney, to veterans, a judge and seniors. It almost seemed like how I envision crowds at the Pearly Gates: “All are welcome,” as we’ve sung at Mass.
It brought me to tears more than once to see everyday people appreciating commonalities amid differences.
Now, however, some are increasingly trying to exploit differences to divide us under the guise of “religious liberty” statutes and lawsuits, where individuals’ or businesses’ purported beliefs take precedence over basic rights and existing laws on federal, state and local levels.
At the least, the reactionary drift makes individuals’ personal preferences more important than society’s; at the most, it subverts the idea and ideal of regular people’s civil rights in a free nation.
Vice President Mike Pence has claimed the necessity to defend “traditional Christian beliefs,” but it’s really part of a troubling trend of government using its power to exalt some faiths and denigrate others. For instance, the Conscience and Religious Freedom Unit was set up last year within the Department of Health and Human Services, led by anti-gay attorney Roger Severino (from the Right-wing Heritage Foundation and the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society).
“When Pence advocates for ‘traditional Christian beliefs,’ it’s important to ask whose tradition,” says Rabbi Jack Moline, president of the Interfaith Alliance. “He, like all of us, has the right to his biblical interpretation and faith. But what he’s doing is conflating disagreement with infringement and rights, and ignoring the rich diversity of faith in this country.”
Indeed, our Constitution’s First Amendment for centuries has let many faiths thrive. The United States has never had a “state religion,” no “correct” way to worship.
But laws can be warped to favor the powerful or a majority. This backward movement might be traced to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, approved in 1993 during the Clinton administration to protect Native American sacraments. In the last decade, however, that well-intentioned effort has been perverted to permit businesses and individuals to use it as a pretext to discriminate. The two best-known examples are the Colorado baker who was eventually allowed to refuse service to a gay couple, and the Hobby Lobby corporation that persuaded the Supreme Court that the owner’s faith allowed him to deny certain health benefits to workers.
Similar court rulings and laws exist in about 30 states. In 2016, six such laws were passed, and there have been more than 60 since, including one approved in June by the Texas legislature that prevents the enforcement of laws that supposedly impede people’s or companies’ moral convictions.
Authoritarian regimes require an illusion of exceptionalism that in turn means scapegoating others: minorities, the poor, people seeking asylum, LGBTQ citizens, Muslims and others.
A still-free people must recognize that differences can comfortably coexist, even be celebrated, and that packaging bigotry in the trappings of faith is perilous to all.
“Objections to Pence’s views on LGBTQ people or other rights are not an infringement on his or anyone else’s religious freedom,” Moline says. “Suggesting that they are, or that evangelical Christians are ‘under attack,’ is not only wrong, it is dangerous.”
Making space for the free exercise of religion isn’t the same as imposing a preferred set of morals. When that happens, discrimination is normalized; everyone loses.
“What the vice president and many like him are describing is not an infringement of their rights or persecution, but theological disagreement and different beliefs that are as protected as their own,” adds Moline. “Pence’s assertion that his rights are being infringed upon ignores the historical understanding of the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. The First Amendment protects my Judaism just as it protects another’s Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism or atheism.”
Sometimes, I see bias cloaked in holy writ, and my eyes once more water. For the wrong reasons.