Why the Christian Right Feels Entitled to Legal Protections to Impose Hate and Mooch Off Taxpayers
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer talks to the news media February 28, 2012 in Glendale, Arizona
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When it comes to homophobia, xenophobia, and other forms of reactionary drama, my old home state Arizona has a knack for taking the gold. Arizona’s recently proposed religious license-to- discriminate, vetoed by governor Jan Brewer, is merely the latest spotlight performance in a long series. Now that it’s over, most of us would like to think we can turn our attention to our laundry. Or climate change. Or whatever.
Unfortunately, the Arizona theater was just one front in a smart, broad assault on civil rights and civic duty under the guise of “religious freedom.” Copycat legislators in Missouri have garnered media attention by introducing a license-to-discriminate law modeled on Arizona’s, but, again, that is just the tip of the blitz. Elsewhere religious conservatives are quietly or boldly seizing ground, leveraging case law they have built over several decades to secure not only the right to discriminate but also financial advantages and a broad range of other entitlements
“Religious freedom” in this context, is not only the freedom to think and worship as one pleases. It is a get-out-of-jail-free card that also gives holders the right to impose their will on others and mooch off of taxpayers from a position of righteous privilege. If the “religious freedom” argument works, conservatives are betting that it will let them turn back the tide on gay rights, keep knowledge of evolutionary biology away from children and block access to family planning. They hope also to proselytize on the public dime using dollars targeted for education, aid, and national security—while leveraging nonprofit tax exemptions to maximize their real estate holdings and other investments.
Anyone who cares about personal freedom, equality or economic opportunity for women, queers, and secular Americans should be taking those aspirations seriously.
Georgia, Ohio, Idaho, and Oregon all have bills under review that would legally secure the right of business owners to discriminate. In Georgia, the law would let a business to ignore state law that “directly or indirectly constrains, inhibits, curtails or denies” the owner’s religious beliefs. The Ohio and Idaho statutes protect people from civil litigation if they acted out of religious conviction. Legislation introduced in Oregon specifically targets gay and lesbian wedding services. Colorado, Kansas, Maine, Tennessee, and Utah have had to fend off similar legislation.
As I said, the right to refuse service is just one of many “religious freedoms” that Christian conservatives are hoping to secure. For example, legislation under consideration in South Dakota protects defamatory speech against gay people.
In Washington in February, publically funded healthcare systems administered by religious corporations won the right to discriminate in hiring. For healthcare workers, the ramifications are enormous because, thanks to mergers, Catholic corporations are the only significant healthcare employer in several counties. Freedom to discriminate means queer or secular doctors, nurses, allied health professionals and even some support staff have no equal right to work. Furthermore, Christian symbols and language let potential employees know they may not be welcome before they even apply. In the San Juan Islands, the only publically subsidized hospital opens job announcements like this: “At Peace Health we carry on the healing mission of Jesus Christ . . . we follow the ethical and religious directives for Catholic health care. . . . “ Catholic care systems have also argued that their workers should have no right to union representation because being subject to the National Labor Relations Board would violate the religious autonomy of the Church.
Nationally, Hobby Lobby, Conestoga Woods and others have taken up the cry of “religious freedom” in their effort to turn back Obamacare. Justification for this fight comes straight from the Bible, which teaches that “women will be saved through childbearing” (1 Timothy 2:15). As church leaders keep reminding us in vile terms, uppity women who delay or limit childbearing violate men’s rights and God’s plan. Religion advocates at the Becket Fund, together with conservative business owners, have taken this religious freedom fight to the Supreme Court where they will argue that a for-profit corporation has religious conscience rights (and by implication these rights trump both public health considerations and the individual conscience rights of employees). With the Supreme Court dominated by Catholics, “religious freedom” may carry the day.