The ACLU, Religious Freedom, and the Laughing Atheist in the Corner

If anyone has talked to me much about politics, they know I don’t fit well into American political categories (American Solidarity Party, Red Tory/Blue Labour), and I’m not given to alarmism.  That being said, if trends continue, something of a crisis in religious freedom is on the horizon in America, similar to what’s currently going on in Western Europe.  Take a quick look at this statement from the ACLU; for what it’s worth, I’d see the ACLU’s position as representative of the majority of Americans to one degree or another.

So, let’s say a Unitarian-Universalist woman goes to a pharmacy to get a pill with abortive effects.  Based on official Unitarian-Universalist teaching, women have the right to access and use such measures as they decide.  The pharmacist is Catholic.  Based on official Catholic teachings, providing such a pill would make her complicit in a mortal sin.  If the pharmacist refuses, the woman can go across the street and almost surely get her prescription filled.

According to the ACLU, the pharmacist in this scenario is “using” religion to discriminate against women, and so could/should be sued.  This lawsuit, apparently, would not count as discriminating against the Catholic pharmacist even though she is being sued for nothing other than practicing her Catholic faith.  Notice as well that she is not even forcing her view on the other woman, just refusing to personally participate.

In this scenario, someone is required to face “discrimination” for their religious beliefs (if having to go to a different pharmacy counts as discrimination; I’m not so sure in this scenario at least) – either the Unitarian-Universalist woman will have to go somewhere else, or the Catholic pharmacist will risk a lawsuit.  This sort of conflict is the very stuff of a truly multicultural society – Religion A thinks Religion B is sinning, Religion B thinks Religion A is sinning by saying that they’re sinning, and the atheist reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra in the corner looks up to laugh at all the talk of sin.

At the very least, why can’t we negotiate this religious conflict and use some sense of proportionality (crossing the street vs. commiting a mortal sin)?  Why do we have to deny that there is a conflict at all, claiming that one party is just “using” religion as an excuse?  The ACLU’s position is in effect siding with Unitarian-Universalism, forms of atheism/agnosticism, liberal mainline Protestantism, etc., over more traditional religious beliefs and practices.

It seems like the ACLU is working with a highly individualistic and compartmentalized definition of “religion.”  But the belief that religion is an individual lifestyle choice that shouldn’t effect the services someone provides in the public sphere is itself a religious belief not shared by a number of religions.  Even the belief that there is such a thing as a “public sphere” that can be cordoned off from a “religious sphere” is itself a religious belief not shared by a number of religions.  The concept of “religion” is a lot harder to pin down, and “religious freedom” much messier in practice than the ACLU’s position allows.

The First Amendment was written with the naïve belief that neutrality is possible, and that such conflicts of religious belief were avoidable altogether or could be resolved by common sense.  In the context of the 18th century, such a position was understandable – there was for the most part a single religious spectrum in America from traditional Christianity to Deism, both poles sharing a broad ethical/political consensus.  As our country has become more religiously diverse and has seemingly lost all “common” sense whatsoever, this assumption of the possibility of neutrality has outlived its usefulness.  In fact, one could argue that the 18th century Christians and Deists had more of an ethical/political consensus than say the Presbyterian Church of America and the Presbyterian Church (USA) do today.  Unless a more robust public definition of religion is affirmed, those religions that don’t fall in line with the Western individualist and secularist consensus will come under increasing scrutiny and pressure in the years to come.

The ACLU’s response to the inevitable conflict between radically different religious worldviews is, with a certain amount of cynicism, to deny that there is even any conflict and to blame one side for “using” religion.  This sanitizes the arbitration process, sure, but at the cost of anything that can be called religious freedom with sincerity or integrity.  The process must be allowed to be messy, and we as a society must learn to make space for each other.  It may mean going to a different pharmacy even though it’s inconvenient.  It may mean supplementing your health insurance out of your own pocket.  It may mean going to a different bakery for your wedding cake.  Or, if you’re a baker, it may mean just baking the stupid cake.

If we want to talk about “using” religion, trouncing over other people’s consciences for the sake of making some larger political point is using people’s religious differences in the worst sort of way.  As far as Christians are concerned, we are called not merely to tolerance, but to hospitality.


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