Home/Rod Dreher/American Blasphemy Laws

American Blasphemy Laws

Screen shot from Sokolovsky video taken inside Orthodox church during prayer

We are supposed to be horrified that Russia is punishing Ruslan Sokolovsky, a 21-year-old atheist provocateur, for entering a church while prayers were going on, playing Pokemon Go in open and intentional violation of the law, then posting a blasphemous YouTube video of it (here, subtitled). If you look at the clip, he acknowledges that it’s against the law to hunt Pokemon in churches, but he says that’s a stupid law, and he’s going to break it.

Which he does. And he doesn’t get caught, because it looks like he’s just using his smartphone. It wasn’t until he posted this to the Internet to mock the church and authorities that he got in trouble. As one Russian priest put it, “Here we are speaking about an obvious violation of sacred places that religious people consider more valuable than life.” Even so, the local Metropolitan (Archbishop) said last week that he would like to try to get Sokolovsky out of prison, and have him come work with church charities, helping the disabled, elderly, and children. “Maybe it would help him take another look at life,” the Metropolitan said.

The latest news is that a judge released Sokolovsky to house arrest for two months. Maybe that will be the end of it. Personally, I have no problem with the state punishing him for going into a church (or mosque, synagogue temple), doing something the church views as desecration of its holy place, then broadcasting his deed. I do have a problem with the Russian law as it stands, which appears far too broad, such that it covers even street protest. In my view, the Duma should amend the law to make it as narrowly tailored as possible. Still, in principle, I support the idea of a blasphemy law in the Russian context. In the Muslim world, especially Pakistan, blasphemy laws are used to persecute Christians and other non-Muslims, simply for existing. In general, I think, blasphemy laws are a bad idea. But again, given what Russia and Russian Christians (and all religious believers there) endured under Bolshevism — millions murdered — I do not, in principle, object to the concept of a blasphemy law there. There is no plausible need for one in America, and I would oppose the establishment of one here.

The point I made yesterday when I blogged about it is that Westerners who are outraged by the very idea of this law ignore Russian history — specifically, the Soviet-era government persecution of Christianity that resulted in millions of deaths, exile to the gulag, destruction of churches, and the like. It’s like American free-speech fundamentalists who don’t understand why Germany has laws forbidding pro-Nazi speech. I would not want those laws in the United States, but then, we have a very different history here.

So many American liberals are bent out of shape about what Russia is doing here that they fail to notice that we have our own blasphemy laws. Look at this, from Eugene Volokh:


From the official Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination’s Gender Identity Guidance, just released last week:

Even a church could be seen as a place of public accommodation if it holds a secular event, such as a spaghetti supper, that is open to the general public.

Now, churches hold events “open to the general public” all the time — it’s often how they seek new converts. And even church “secular events,” which I take it means events that don’t involve overt worship, are generally viewed by the church as part of its ministry, and certainly as a means of the church modeling what it believes to be religiously sound behavior.


Under Massachusetts law, refusing to use a transgender person’s preferred pronoun would be punishable discrimination. (At least this is true of “he” or “she” — I saw nothing in the document about “ze” and other newly made-up pronouns.) The Massachusetts document I linked to makes that clear in the employment context, and it also makes clear that the antidiscrimination law rules apply to places of public accommodations (including churches, in “secular events” “open to the public”) just as much as to employment.

Indeed, a church might be liable even for statements by its congregants (and not just its volunteers, who are acting as agents) that are critical of transgender people. Tolerating such remarks is generally seen as allowing a “hostile environment,” and therefore “harassment.” Indeed, the statement I linked to specifically encourages people to “prohibit derogatory comments or jokes about transgender persons from employees, clients, vendors and any others, and promptly investigate and discipline persons who engage in discriminatory conduct” (emphasis added). But that’s not just encouragement; it simply reflects hostile work environment harassment law, which has long required employers to restrict derogatory speech by clients, to prevent “hostile environments.” See 29 C.F.R. § 1604.11. The same logic applies for places of public accommodation, which Massachusetts says can include churches.

Notice this too:

Under G.L. c. 272, § 92A, the law provides that a place of public accommodation may not distribute, publish or display an advertisement, notice, or sign intended to discriminate against or actually discriminating against persons of any gender identity.

Better not be a sign on the church bulletin board that offends a transgender who wanders in, or there will be trouble. Ah, the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, where if your church holds a fundraising fish fry during Lent, it invites the jackboot of the state onto its neck if a deacon criticizes transgenderism. In Russia, Sokolovsky had to enter a church, intentionally violate its sanctity (and the law), and broadcast to his 300,000 YouTube followers what he had done, for the state to come down on him. In Massachusetts, if a transgender enters into a church to intentionally provoke it because she doesn’t like the church’s stand on LGBT issues, and someone there makes a statement that offends here, she can count on the state coming down on the church.

Volokh, a law professor, says that the Massachusetts law should make it clear that “this is where these rules are headed, at least in places like Massachusetts but likely elsewhere as well.”

But see, Russia has a blasphemy law. America doesn’t.

Check out this Briefing from the US Commission on Civil Rights, which addresses reconciling anti-discrimination law with religious liberty (PDF). You will not be surprised to learn that a majority of the commission has little respect for religious liberty. Here is a statement appended to the report by Martin Castro, its chairman:

The phrases “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance. Religious liberty was never intended to give one religion dominion over other religions, or a veto power over the civil rights and civil liberties of others. However, today, as in the past, religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality. In our nation’s past religion has been used to justify slavery and later, Jim Crow laws. We now see “religious liberty” arguments sneaking their way back into our political and constitutional discourse (just like the concept of “state rights”) in an effort to undermine the rights of some Americans. This generation of Americans must stand up and speak out to ensure that religion never again be twisted to deny others the full promise of America.

Castro was appointed commission chair by Obama. Previously, Castro served on the Illinois “Human Rights Commission,” a phrase that strikes fear into the heart of every non-liberal Canadian.

Here’s what the full report says about forcing Catholic hospitals to perform abortions:

In October 2015, the ACLU of Michigan sued Trinity Health Corporation. Trinity, a public funding recipient, is a large Catholic health system. It allegedly “requires that all of its facilities abide by the Ethical and Religious Directives promulgated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops”which

prohibit a pre-viability pregnancy termination, even when there is little or no chance that the fetus will survive, and the life or health of a pregnant woman is at risk. They also direct health care providers not to inform patients about alternatives inconsistent with those directives even when those alternatives are the best option for the patient’s health.

The refusal to provide reproductive health services such as medically necessary abortions or tubal ligations violates the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act. As noted below, Members of Congress recently wrote to the Attorney General regarding the 2007 DOJ OLC memorandum addressing RFRA exemptions referred to instances in which it is being used to argue for the supremacy of religious exemptions over access to reproductive health care. One can only hope that Congress cannot have intended RFRA to justify suffering and to endanger human life.

According to the majority opinion of the US Commission of Civil Rights, Catholic hospitals must be made to perform medical procedures that the Catholic churches teachers are tantamount to homicide.

If you read the report, there can be no doubt that a majority of the federal Civil Rights Commission would have no problem with the State of Massachusetts going after churches there. Massachusetts churches who haven’t joined Team #LoveWins™ had better not hold a church supper open to the public, or they risk punishment for violating Massachusetts’ blasphemy law.

Dissenting commission member Peter Kirsanow succinctly summed up the clash of worldviews here:

The tension between religious liberty and nondiscrimination principles appears most acute when religious liberty and sexual liberty conflict. There are at least two ways of conceptualizing the conflict. The first is as a conflict between two rights-the right to be served without discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation, and the right to manifest one’s religious beliefs by choosing whom to serve. The second is whether religious believers should receive exemptions from neutral laws of general applicability. But the conflict goes deeper. It is a conflict between two worldviews, both held with the intensity generally associated with religious belief.

The first, which is secularism, holds an individual’s unfettered sexual self-expression as a preeminent concern because it is an aspect of their self creation. This interest in the individual is now construed as a positive responsibility to ensure that everyone has the ability to engage in sexual conduct without cost or consequence, whether in money, unwanted children, or hurt feelings. An individual’s sexual behavior is considered an act of self-creation and something that goes to the deepest level of their identity.  Criticism of an individual’s behavior is considered an attack on the dignity of the person. Naturally, this worldview is at odds with many aspects of traditional morality grounded in sexual restraint.

The second worldview holds that individuals are not their own judge, but rather are subject to divine law and divine judgment. The morality of a person’s conduct does not ultimately depend upon whether he thinks it is right, or whether it accords with his desires, but whether it conforms to divine law. Moral standards of behavior are external to a person, not internal. Therefore, even though people, including religious believers, fall short of these standards, they do not have the authority to change the standards. Furthermore, it is a sin to assist another person in breaking the moral law, or to applaud breaking the moral law. In a predominantly Judeo-Christian society, this worldview is most closely reflected in the Ten Commandments. Although believers realize that they break the Ten Commandments both through what Christians often call “sins of omission” and “sins of commission,” they are not free to change “Thou shalt not bear false witness” to something more congenial. Instead, they are told to repent of their sin and to try to avoid repeating it.

This is the nub of the conflict between the proponents of nondiscrimination norms and proponents of constitutionally-protected religious liberty.


A version of this approach seems to have been adopted by political and cultural elites. This of course tips the scales in their favor. Defining public reason as encompassing only “presently accepted general beliefs and forms of reasoning found in common sense, and the methods and conclusions of science when these are not controversial” while explicitly excluding reasons based in religion means that what seems like “common sense” to the secular and what seems like “common sense” to the religious can be two very different things. Yet only the former is regarded as legitimate in public debates. For example, a devout Christian may regard it as “common sense” that marriage is between a man and a woman, in large part because that is the pattern laid out in the Bible. A secularist may consider it “common sense” that marriage is between two people who share a deep emotional attachment, and point to the benefits of having someone to care for you in illness, etc. And indeed, as mentioned above, secularism has its own commandments and shibboleths, though it is rarely viewed that way by its adherents. Yet only one of these two versions of “common sense” is regarded as legitimate by our political system, even if the former would be persuasive to a large number of people. In some cases, courts have even implied that because some people favored a particular policy for religious reasons, the entire enterprise is tainted by animus and thus is unconstitutional. In fact, there are really two clashing moralities in play, especially in regard to same-sex marriage, but the courts choose one over another while pretending to be neutral. It is permissible for a pro-same-sex marriage campaign to be animated by the belief that same-sex marriage is morally good, but it is impermissible for a pro-traditional marriage campaign to be animated by the belief that same-sex marriage is morally wrong.

Secular liberalism is a religion that tells itself it isn’t a religion. This is why its adherents don’t believe that their blasphemy laws are blasphemy laws, though that’s exactly how the laws function. It’s all about what — and who — you consider sacred. In Russia, among other things, they consider God and the Church sacred. In America, among other things, we consider gays and transgenders sacred.

UPDATE:Andrew T. Walker says old-fashioned liberals need to reign in the gay-rights Jacobins among them. Excerpt:

Consider the Human Rights Campaign. As the leader of the gay rights movement in America, HRC can control and frame the debate and rhetoric surrounding LGBT rights—especially in the most elite sectors of American culture, from where it draws its strength and support. There has been absolutely zero magnanimity coming from HRC or Chad Griffin, the organization’s president. The Human Rights Campaign has become a primary incubator for communicating the distortions that the media happily laps up concerning religious liberty.

In its worst forms, HRC creates campaigns that insinuate that anyone dissenting on sexuality is guilty of criminal behavior. Furthermore, Griffin’s Twitter timeline is filled with harsh caricaturing toward institutions or persons that believe in biblically orthodox sexual ethics. In the way that Griffin frames the discussion, there is no goodwill. Everyone who isn’t with him is against him.

This is very significant, because Griffin is arguably the most successful political tactician in America concerning gay rights. His inability to see that there are people of goodwill on opposites of the sexuality debate (even President Obama has said as much) is telling, and has disastrous consequences for the future of American discourse.

Then we also must consider the rhetoric from self-professed “progressive Christians” on LGBT rights. For them, LGBT rights has become, fundamentally, a matter of justice. Not only justice, but a form of justice that calls on the Old Testament prophets for their authority and indignation.

Where justice is at stake, like secular progressives these Christian social justice warriors are adopting the posture that any disagreement on LGBT sexual ethics equals directly harming LGBT people. Consider the words of Brandan Robertson, a young LGBT Christian activist.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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