When Should Religious Liberty Win?
All this talk today about Masterpiece Cakeshop brings me back to this passage from Maggie Gallagher’s prescient 2006 piece for The Weekly Standard, in which she interviewed several key scholars on the coming struggle between gay rights and religious liberty. This is an important passage; boldface emphases are mine:
Of all the scholars who attended, perhaps the most surprising is Chai Feldblum. She is a Georgetown law professor who is highly sought after on civil rights issues, especially gay civil rights. She has drafted many federal bills to prohibit orientation discrimination and innumerable amicus briefs in constitutional cases seeking equality for gay people. I ask her why she decided to make time for a conference on the impact of same-sex marriage on religious liberty.
“Not because I was caught up in the panic,” she laughs. She’d been thinking through the moral implications of nondiscrimination rules in the law, a lonely undertaking for a gay rights advocate. “Gay rights supporters often try to present these laws as purely neutral and having no moral implications. But not all discrimination is bad,” Feldblum points out. In employment law, for instance, “we allow discrimination against people who sexually abuse children, and we don’t say ‘the only question is can they type’ even if they can type really quickly.”
To get to the point where the law prohibits discrimination, Feldblum says, “there have to be two things: one, a majority of the society believing the characteristic on which the person is being discriminated against is not morally problematic, and, two, enough of a sense of outrage to push past the normal American contract-based approach, where the government doesn’t tell you what you can do. There has to be enough outrage to bypass that basic default mode in America. Unlike some of my compatriots in the gay rights movement, I think we advance the cause of gay equality if we make clear there are moral assessments that underlie antidiscrimination laws.”
But there was a second reason Feldblum made time for this particular conference. She was raised an Orthodox Jew. She wanted to demonstrate respect for religious people and their concerns, to show that the gay community is not monolithic in this regard.
“It seemed to me the height of disingenuousness, absurdity, and indeed disrespect to tell someone it is okay to ‘be’ gay, but not necessarily okay to engage in gay sex. What do they think being gay means?” she writes in her Becket paper. “I have the same reaction to courts and legislatures that blithely assume a religious person can easily disengage her religious belief and self-identity from her religious practice and religious behavior. What do they think being religious means?”
To Feldblum the emerging conflicts between free exercise of religion and sexual liberty are real: “When we pass a law that says you may not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, we are burdening those who have an alternative moral assessment of gay men and lesbians.” Most of the time, the need to protect the dignity of gay people will justify burdening religious belief, she argues. But that does not make it right to pretend these burdens do not exist in the first place, or that the religious people the law is burdening don’t matter.
“You have to stop, think, and justify the burden each time,” says Feldblum. She pauses. “Respect doesn’t mean that the religious person should prevail in the right to discriminate–it just means demonstrating a respectful awareness of the religious position.“
Right! This is what the majority opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop found, yes? But then:
Feldblum believes this sincerely and with passion, and clearly (as she reminds me) against the vast majority of opinion of her own community. And yet when push comes to shove, when religious liberty and sexual liberty conflict, she admits, “I’m having a hard time coming up with any case in which religious liberty should win.”
And so again, we are back to the substantive claims problem. Ultimately, the Court is going to have to hand down some kind of guidelines for deciding when religious liberty claims should prevail over anti-discrimination law. In other words, they’re going to have to come up with a case in which religious liberty should win — and be able to explain why.
I’ve looked for Chai Feldblum’s comments on the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling, but can’t find any. I doubt she will say anything about it, given that her nomination for another term leading the EEOC is still up in the air. But if any of you readers find her analysis, please let me know. I would not be surprised if she favored the ruling, on the narrow grounds that two Court liberals did.