Friday, February 14, 2014

Ministry of Religious Discrimination

Time for another reply to a recent bit of nonsense by Terry Hurlbut on his Conservative News and Views blog.

Actually, just about everything he writes on that site is nonsense, and there are better uses for time than trying to keep up, point-by-point, with the firehose of not-even-right posted there each week.  This one touches on issues I've been discussing with family lately, so I thought it was worth commenting on here.

The post in question touches on the imaginary "Silent war on religion" mentioned in a speech by Bobby Jindal, and in particular, whether institutions have a right to sidestep legal requirements, or to deny employment or service to customers, based on the religious beliefs of the owners.  I touched on this in a recent post about the Little Sisters of the Poor, but there are some additional considerations in what Jindal said.

To recap my points from the Little Sisters case, a nation that values individual privacy, liberty and freedom of religion should not allow any business or group to deny others equal treatment under the law over a religious principle, when the setting is not a place of worship.  

If you want to run a hospital or nursing home, even if that's part of your religious mission, you're engaged in a service that can be offered outside of the religious context.  If I want to receive Catholic Communion, then I have to go to a Catholic church and follow their principles to participate in something only that religion can provide.  If I need a nursing home for a family member, I can obtain that service without having to conform to a religious doctrine first.  Since there's nothing inherently religious in the nature of operating a hospital or nursing home, there's no justification for using a sponsoring group's religious constraints to deny legally-required benefits to employees of different faiths when the benefit has nothing to do with job performance.  The Little Sisters have no right to intrude on the privacy of their employees to cherry-pick birth control coverage as something to be denied when the law says otherwise.  They don't get to deny spousal health-care coverage for couples only married at city hall, even if this is considered adultery in the Catholic faith - where's the line to be drawn then?

Jindal mentions also mentions the pending Hobby Lobby case,  which is even weaker than the Little Sisters case because the owners are deeply religious, but not a religious organization.  The same principle applies - if you're running a secular business, then you have to comply with civil laws regardless of your personal religious beliefs.  Could a fundamentalist refuse to hire qualified women for open positions because their religious views consider a woman's place to be in the home raising children and serving the husband instead?  Can spousal benefits be denied to anyone who didn't get married in an approved religious ceremony?  Can I fire an employee (a "servant") for working a second job on the Sabbath when my business is closed, since that puts me in violation of the Fourth Commandment otherwise?  Most reasonable people would say no to these examples, but that's exactly what the principles of Hurlbut and Jindal allow.

Then you have the cases of bakeries and wedding  photographers who were found to be in violation of the law for refusing to accommodate customers when same-sex weddings were involved.  Once again, if you run a place of public accommodation, then you have to accommodate everyone equally under the law when they are asking you to perform the same services you offer to others.  If you're a devout Christian baker, then making a wedding cake for a divorced person remarrying for the second or third time, or a couple getting married outside the Church, is really making the couple an "adultery cake", per the direct policy of Jesus Christ.  You don't see bakers or wedding photographers pre-screening customers for religious compliance over adultery, so picking same-sex marriage as the "red line" for refusal of service is hypocritical, arbitrary, and yes, discriminatory.  It's not about religion, it's about prejudice.

A point made by Terry in his piece is that you can get around this separation of religion and business by focusing on the definition of "ministry", and he & Jindal cite a case where a religious school's dismissal of a teacher was upheld because teachers in a parochial school are considered agents of ministry. That argument only goes so far, though, no matter how much Terry would want to extend the concept.  If my fast-food restaurant prints Bible verses on the cups and napkins to "spread the faith", does that make the restaurant a ministry, and by extension, the cashiers and fry cooks are now ministers because they help support the enterprise?  I went to a parochial school for grades K-4, and church services & daily prayers were part of the experience because my parents chose that for me.  That's a lot different than running a place of public accommodation where you are obliged to serve whoever walks in the door equally regardless of their faith.

The people signing the Declaration of Independence were making a statement, so there was no problem with them mentioning religion in the document as was the custom of the time.  However, these same men were not to that far removed from times and places where the quality of life (or even your life itself) would be at risk depending on what colony you lived in and the religious practices of the people in power.  When the time came to actually draft the supreme law of the land, the Constitution, they enshrined freedom of religion as an individual right, not a group or government right.  That's why the one key mention of religion in the Constitution was to declare that there would be no religious test to hold Federal government office.  An atheist could be president if the voters will it, and that's exactly what the Founders intended for a nation where individual freedoms matter.


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