The Best Defense of Religious Liberty

Wristbands reading "Teach Evolution"A few weeks ago, we got an unusual query. A company——that manufactures the sorts of wristbands made famous by Lance Armstrong, wanted to donate the profits from a recent order to NCSE. The order by a creationist group that I won’t bother to identify had been for over 100,000 bands instructing the wearer to “DEBUNK EVOLUTION.”

As our press release explains, the company’s CEO disagrees with that message. On the other hand, the company’s role isn’t to police the messages of its customers, and turning down business would hurt him and his employees. Refusing the order would be the wrong solution, but he didn't want to silently endorse a message he found problematic. Manufacturing the wristbands but donating the profits to NCSE balances those needs in a pretty awesome way.

In the letter offering the donation, we were asked to issue a press release about it. But even before I heard that, I was already composing this post in my head, because I saw a broader point here. The donation doesn’t just represent a thumb in the eye to creationism and valuable assistance to NCSE; it also offers guidance for other business owners who feel a conflict between their values and their business.

Which brings us to Mississippi, North Carolina, and the widespread twisting of the term “religious liberty” to justify discrimination and segregation. Instead of understanding the concept as a way to prevent the government from imposing religion or religious practices, bigots are using the term to impose their religious doctrines on others.

The current iteration of that theme emerged in the battle over marriage equality, with various religious groups, business owners, and public officials claiming that being obliged to bake a cake, arrange flowers, or issue marriage licenses for same-sex weddings, would violate their religious liberty by involving them in what they regard as immoral. These claims gained legal force thanks to the weird Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision on contraception coverage in employer-backed health insurance. Mississippi just adopted a law which purports to enshrine the religious liberty of business owners to refuse to play any role in same sex weddings (thus, as one commenter observes, allowing a hotel to refuse to rent a room to gay honeymooners but not to same sex couples writ large). A similar law was vetoed in Georgia. North Carolina recently adopted a related law, also under the banner of “religious liberty,” overturning local nondiscrimination laws and restricting which restrooms transgender people can use. A similar bill was vetoed in South Dakota, but one is under consideration in Kansas which would provide a bounty to students who turn in others for using the restroom matching their identity rather than their birth certificate. Kim Davis, an elected county clerk in Kentucky, cited her religious liberty as justification for refusing to allow her office to issue same-sex marriage licenses, just as public school teachers sometimes (wrongly) assert that religious liberty excuses them from teaching evolution. None of these claims to religious liberty makes any sense.

When a state grants bakers the power to refuse to make a gay couple a cake, that doesn’t protect the baker’s liberty; it just grants the state’s sanction to the baker’s infringement of other people’s liberty. This isn’t a new discovery: racial segregation was once justified by claims of religious liberty), but the Civil Rights Act made clear that one’s personal beliefs can’t justify discrimination in service or hiring.

Requiring Woolworth’s to serve black customers or Barronelle Stutzman to arrange flowers for her gay neighbors’ wedding doesn’t take away anyone’s right to be a bigot. They are welcome to take their customers’ money and donate it to advancing their preferred causes, even if doing so runs counter to their customers’ values or interests. That’s just what did here, and in the end, I think its solution is far superior to the oppressive alternative being advanced by the radical religious right. And it’s proof of the ancient dictum that, when confronted with speech one finds harmful, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.

Josh Rosenau
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Josh Rosenau is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.

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