On “Religious Freedom”

Alabaster Jesus. Photo by Callen Harty.

Several states have either tried or succeeded in passing bills over the last few years that are supposedly “religious freedom” bills. Many have been blocked from getting through or states have suffered boycotts and loss of business before or after passing these bills. But proponents keep trying and the more they try and succeed even a little bit the more inured the general population gets to the idea and the less resistance there is to such draconian bills. Now Donald Trump, who held up a rainbow flag during the campaign and who swore that he would stand by the LGBT community, appears to be on board with the idea. Multiple sources are reporting that he is set to sign an Executive Order tomorrow that does just that. Apparently he thinks that it is in the best interests–not of his country, but of his political life because you have to keep those wacky right-wing Christians happy and in the Republican base–to sign an order promoting the idea of “religious freedom.”

For anyone who did not already know this–and I’m guessing with his views on Frederick Douglass, Andrew Jackson, and how little he understands other historical facts, Trump probably doesn’t–freedom of religion is already enshrined in the Bill of Rights. It guarantees that all Americans have the right to worship as they choose, if they choose. Nobody is stopping conservative Christians from praying. Nobody is stopping them from joining together in community. Nobody is even stopping them from believing that abortion, gays, contraception, and more are evil. But someone needs to let them know that they are also free not to get an abortion, practice a “gay lifestyle” (as if there were only one gay lifestyle), or use contraception. It is their choice.

What they are not free to do is to discriminate against fellow Americans because of their beliefs and their hatred. Big surprise, but blacks can sit at the counter now. They can join formerly white country clubs. Women can join formerly all-male country clubs. Muslims can build mosques in America, but they can’t discriminate against others and neither can Christians. What these laws and Trump’s Executive Order do is to allow discrimination based on hatred under the guise of “religious freedom”. A shop owner who is a right-wing Christian who believes that homosexuality is evil will be able to refuse service to someone because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Don’t think it would happen? Wrong. We have already all heard the stories of photographers, cake makers, and others refusing to work on gay marriages. Last year Mississippi failed to pass a “religious freedom” bill and a funeral home there still allegedly refused to cremate the body of a gay man because, according to the nursing home where the man died, the funeral home “did not deal with their kind”. A lawsuit is currently pending. Just imagine how many businesses there are that might refuse certain potential customers but don’t go that far because they are afraid of getting in trouble with the law or don’t want to face a potential lawsuit.

Trump’s Executive Order essentially says to them, “Go ahead. It’s okay. Follow your beliefs. You don’t have to serve sinners in your business.”

Of course those same people will happily provide cakes, flowers, or whatever their business offers (even cremation services) to adulterers, idolaters, murderers, thieves, men whose god is money, those who don’t keep the Sabbath (in fact, these days most of those Christian store owners are probably open and doing business on the Sabbath), those who lie, steal, dishonor their parents, take their own God’s name in vain . . . But if you’re queer, “we reserve the right to refuse service” because of our heartfelt beliefs.

I am saddened beyond belief that in this country bills like this and an Executive Order like this are even considered. This does not represent the land of the free or the nation where all men are created equal.

The moment Trump’s pen signs the order there will be lawsuits filed against it as an unconstitutional approval of discrimination and an unconstitutional elevation of one religion over another. In the past, even with conservative courts, I would have had utter faith that the plaintiffs would win, but we are not living in a rational world any more. I fear that our current Supreme Court justices could bend the arc of their moral universe toward injustice.

If this stands LGBT citizens, women who want or need an abortion, and those who wish to purchase contraceptives will just be the first. Don’t kid yourself that it will stop at that. The Bible teaches that women should be subservient to men–would it not be freedom of religion to beat and rape women to keep them in their place? Likewise, those who do not accept Jesus Christ as their savior are doomed to hell, so what good Christian shopkeeper would not refuse service to Muslims, Hindus, atheists, and anyone else who did not subscribe to their beliefs? If a person’s belief system tells them that murderers, those who practice the occult, and other sinners should be stoned to death how dare the government infringe upon one’s right to do just that? These are extreme examples, but the far-right in this country is as extreme as the radical Muslims they so hate. They would like nothing better than a theocracy that honors God’s literal law (as long as it’s their god). The Constitution is meaningless to these people. The only law that matters to them is the law of their god (and their specific interpretation of it).

What the people who promote these kinds of laws don’t understand is that as an American people we have decided that the Constitution is the law of the land, not any one person’s religious beliefs. We have also decided that the Constitution and its amendments are not so black and white as they appear on paper. As a people we have decided it’s not okay to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We have said that those whose religions do not believe in medicine are not allowed to let their children die because of their beliefs. We have said that there is freedom of speech and press but that a person is not allowed to spread untruths about the subjects of that speech or the press. We have given freedom of religion to our citizens but we have not required anyone to believe in a particular religion and we have not let the beliefs of a specific religion infringe upon the rights of other citizens. We have done our best as a society to balance the rights of one group against the rights of others, with certain ideas implicitly understood and accepted.

These “religious freedom” bills and Trump’s Executive Order turn those long-held understandings upside-down. They make it possible to rob me and others of the pursuit of happiness. If this happens and it stands liberty will be the next to go. And then I fear for my life.

Note: Today (Thursday, 5/4/17) Trump signed an Executive Order on “religious freedom”. The part that would have allowed for discrimination against LGBT citizens that appeared in earlier versions was removed, likely because it was so clearly unconstitutional. What was signed, however, loosens IRS enforcement of the law that prevents ministers and other religious leaders from tax-exempt churches from endorsing candidates or promoting political viewpoints from the pulpit. Not a good thing for those who believe in the separation of church and state. It also appears to allow companies to prevent employees from obtaining contraception from their employer-provided health plans based on religious reasons. This is also a blurring of the lines between separation of church and state.

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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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