July 2014

Freedom of, freedom from - a simple, vital concept

By Katharhynn Heidelberg

Check any book of quotations and you can find ammunition for or against the argument that “America was founded as a Christian nation.” True, it is a ridiculous debate more than 230 years later, in a land where legal precedent upholds the Establishment Clause and where there is no systematic persecution of any religion, the annual tradition of lamenting the non-existent “War on Christmas” notwithstanding.

I suppose it depends on how you define “Christian nation.” If the term means a country founded by people who were predominantly Christian and which remains inhabited by a Christian majority, then, sure. We’re a Christian nation in that respect.

But those who believe it means America was founded as a Christian state to enforce a Christian worldview and Christian practices are theocrats who have failed to grasp the very purpose and beauty of the country, as well as the importance of separating church from state.

Too often, the term is bandied about by those inclined to rail and wail about “individual freedom” when the state fails to favor their religious beliefs in terms of policy and law.

Why can’t a Christian baker who opposes civil rights for same-sex couples refuse to bake two men a wedding cake? Why is the state forcing a baker to either do so, or go out of business? What about his rights?

Answer: The state isn’t forcing the baker to do anything. Businesses are places of public accommodation — there’s laws, an’ ev’rythin. To put it another way, a person’s religious-freedom rights end where the rights of others begin.

No matter how much kicking and screaming at the notion, it is true. Consider the examples below (with the understanding that they, unlike bakers opposed to civil rights, involve actual crimes):

1. A person whose “religion” calls for blood sacrifice can hold that belief all the livelong day, but cannot, in fact, murder another human being, or even a pet animal, and escape charges purely because his “religion” says it’s OK and he’s just exercising his rights. The other human being’s rights trump his religious expression in this instance. Even the pet’s rights do — malicious killing of a pet means a felony cruelty charge in Colorado.

2. Warren Jeffs cannot claim “religious freedom” in raping little girls (and, according to a civil suit, his own nephews) just because his crackpot cult deems him a “prophet” and he, lying through his wretched teeth, says God speaks to and through him, so it’s just an expression of his faith to “marry” 12-year-olds. His belief doesn’t change the reality that he is breaking the law and harming others. If there are any doubts as to that, remember that the state was able to put him away. Child rape is illegal.

3. The sins of some notorious cults include slavery, murder, rape, assault, imprisonment and mental torture/manipulation. The first five are explicitly against the law and shock the conscience. The sixth is immoral and, I hope, also shocks the conscience. Imagine, for a minute, that Jim Jones had avoided the fate he inflicted on others in Guyana. Now imagine him bleating about his “religious freedom” at his trial. Would you buy that?

4. A man beats his wife and says it’s not just allowed by his religion, but required. Does he get arrested? One hopes.

5. Male members of a family murder a woman or girl in their family because hangovers from their culture’s previous tribal religions have resulted in the determination that she “dishonored” them — usually by doing something, however slight, that shows she is not completely under their control and might be something other than a doormat/ baby machine. Or even the perception of same. Or even a pre-emptive strike out of the fear that she might step her foot wrong. (“Honor” killings did not originate with Islam, though when they now occur they are often committed in the name of Islam.)

Honor killings happen even in the United States, yet Palestina Isa’s parents, who stabbed her to death in 1989 because she had a job and a boyfriend, did not escape prison. Faleh Hassan al-Meleki, who ran down his daughter Noor Al-Maleki in Arizona, is now in prison for Noor’s murder — his religious beliefs notwithstanding.

The above are, again, extreme examples of people motivated (at least ostensibly) by their religion. To be clear yet again, a baker who won’t make a cake or a photographer who won’t take a picture for a homosexual couple commits no crime, let alone one comparable to any of the above. Those examples are presented, though, to draw a clear and bright line as to the limits of “religious freedom.” There are not only boundaries to one’s ability to invoke religious freedom, but widely accepted boundaries.

You can believe anything you want. You can believe, as I do, that Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins. You can believe the Pope speaks for God. You can believe that Muhammad is the prophet of God. You can believe even that Warren “Waste of Space” Jeffs has it right. And you can believe that homosexuality is a sin.

What you cannot do is use any of the above beliefs to discriminate against others in the public square when you operate a business for public accommodation. This is not a difficult concept, so please stop with the whole “Halp, halp, I’m bein’ oppressed!” victimcry.

That isn’t only absurd, but is also breathtakingly offensive. The victims are the members of the public whom you have randomly decreed unwelcome because you don’t approve of their sex lives — which are not your concern. You are not operating a church. You are operating a business and you have made that choice, not the government.

If you cannot appreciate the reason why even other practitioners of your religion might oppose your attempts to use the state as an enforcement arm for your beliefs, at least think about that.

The thing about the separation of church and state is that it doesn’t just keep religions from running our lives. It prevents the government from running our religions.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is an award-winning journalist in Montrose, Colo.