Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Last Liberal for Religious Freedom

Stephen Prothero says religious liberty is a cause liberals ought to embrace

Very, very grateful for Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero for saying this just now on Facebook:

Distressing to see so many of my FB friends lining up to take down the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act on the grounds that it is a “license to discriminate” against the LGBT community. The original RFRA was passed unanimously by the US House (and with 3 dissenters only in the Senate) in an effort to restore religious liberty to Native Americans using peyote stripped from them in Employment Division v. Smith (1990). Recently, the federal RFRA was used to protect the rights of a Muslim prisoner to keep a beard. I support gay rights. I support gay marriage. I also support religious liberty. There are sometimes conflicts between these commitments–I recognize that. But it is a sad, sad day when there is so little regard for the rights of religious conscience for fellow citizens, especially among my liberal friends who should be their defenders. Religious liberty (and freedom of speech) are not just for people who agree with your religion (or secularity) or your speech. It is for people with whom you disagree, even evangelicals. [PS–I disagree with one key feature in the law, which extends this religious liberty protection to “entities” including corporations. But I support state RFRAs in general for protecting religious minorities.] Smart letter here by legal scholars for those who want to learn more about this law (versions of which have been passed in 31 states, for reasons have nothing to do with homosexuality)–rather than just venting about it without understanding the history of religious liberty in the US or the specific provisions of this law.

He also wrote about it in USA Today. Excerpt:

There is no excuse for refusing to serve a lesbian couple at a restaurant and to my knowledge no state RFRA has ever been used to justify such discrimination. But if we favor liberty for all Americans (and not just for those who agree with us), we should be wary of using the coercive powers of government to compel our fellow citizens to participate in rites that violate their religious beliefs. We would not force a Jewish baker to make sacramental bread for a Catholic Mass. Why would we force a fundamentalist baker to make a cake for a gay wedding?

For as long as I can remember, the culture wars have been poisoning our politics, turning Democrats and Republicans into mortal enemies and transforming arenas that used to be blithely bipartisan into battlegrounds between good and evil. Now our battles over “family values” are threatening to kill religious liberty. And liberals do not much seem to care.

In a recent speech at Boston University, University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock observed that America’s sexual revolution seems to be going the way of the French Revolution, in which religion and liberty cannot coexist. Today pro-choice and gay rights groups increasingly view conservative Christians as bigots hell bent on imposing their primitive beliefs on others.

Rather than viewing today’s culture wars as battles between light and darkness, Laycock sees them as principled disagreements. What one side views as “grave evils,” the other side views as “fundamental human rights.” What is needed if we want to preserve liberty in both religion and sexuality is a grand bargain in which the left would agree not to impose its secular morality on religious individuals while the right would agree not to impose its religious rules on society at large.

Prothero makes a point that very few people on the left seem to care about:

The left sees this law as a blank check to discriminate. But RFRAs are not blank checks. They simply offer religious minorities a day in court, and only rarely do these cases concern gay rights.

He adds that almost all of his liberal friends disagree with him.

Read the entire USA Today column. Are there any other liberals who actually support religious liberty, even for religious people they don’t like?