Law for All

We hold these truths to be self-evident:
that all men are created equal;
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights;
that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Being able to worship the religion of one’s choosing (or engage in no worship at all) is the very first amendment of the United States’ Constitution, and for good reason. It grants Americans the right to be themselves and to seek out spiritual institutions that enrich their lives, if they so choose. With this basic premise, the Founding Fathers also ensured that, in theory, all religions would be treated equally; no religion would be placed as superior to others in the context of law.

As it happens, majority rule dictates social norms. The constitution established freedom of religion, but it could not shield the nation from the overarching influence of Christianity that now guides the moral pulse of Americans. Certainly, all politicians are influenced by their personal experiences, so it’s unsurprising that individual religious experiences influence American laws. However, this influence should be kept within reason, and lawmakers must consider how any law will influence all persons residing in America. The balance between church and state is a reminder that the federal government may not exert influence over religious spheres and a reminder too that religious spheres cannot have undue influence over the government. Any law that is passed must be for the good of the atheist as it is for the Muslim as it is for the Catholic.

Religions are well to have opinions about how people should live, but they cannot force these attitudes on every person in the United States through laws; instead, their influence must be from the pulpit. By living in the United States, the people agree to follow the United States’ laws; they do not sign up to be indoctrinated into one religion.

When this overwhelming Christian influence is questioned because it jeopardizes access to civil services and equality for other groups, Christians are quick to claim that they are being persecuted. Yet, what is being perceived as discrimination is simply society’s push towards a broader acceptance of other groups, both religious and nonreligious. Calls for kindness and revised laws are not attacks on religious organizations; they are calls to improve lives. Religions may disagree with these calls and may openly say so in their appropriate spheres, as long as doing so does not violate their tax-exempt status. However, the government was established for and by the people, not just for and by religious followers.

Most recently, debate has escalated about religious freedom in the United States after the legalization of equal marriage. Some Christians groups, most vocally Catholics and Evangelicals, have condemned the legalization of same-sex marriage because it goes against their principles. While these religious groups do claim that gayness is opposed to the natural order, this position is also founded in the premise that all married couples must have children through natural conception. Catholics and Evangelicals are permitted to hold their beliefs, but because those beliefs are 100% based in religious doctrine, they cannot be constitutionally used to write laws.

In addition, churches, as long as they meet the IRS’ qualifications, are classified as charitable, tax-exempt organizations. This status was created to protect religions from crushing taxation that could have forced churches to close (think the Sheriff of Nottingham’s exploitation of Friar Tuck), particularly if the taxes were designed to target specific religions over others.  In exchange for not paying taxes, churches are not supposed to have political affiliations. However, as Time’s Mark Oppenheimer writes, “Although nonprofits can’t endorse political candidates, they can be quite partisan and still thrive on the public dole, in the form of tax exemptions and deductions.” This partisanship may go against the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold tax-exempt statuses. In the 1970’s Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York, Chief Justice Burger wrote “certain entities that exist in a harmonious relationship to the community at large, and that foster its ‘moral or mental improvement’” would be deterred from their mission by taxation, but as this Washington Post article asks, “Do most churches still exist ‘harmoniously’ with the community at large and should the government still rely on churches to define moral improvement?” If churches are demanding laws that discriminate against minorities instead of co-existing peacefully with the rest of society, this balance has certainly been compromised.

Setting aside the legal ramifications of religious partisanship as it relates to taxation, churches do and will strongly influence their members’ attitudes for better or worse. Individuals outside of these groups may find religious beliefs judgemental, but members are constitutionally allowed to hold them. However, when these judgemental, holier-than-thou attitudes leak outside of churches into laws and mandatory practices in everyday society, they must be curtailed. No one should be forced to participate in a religion, yet laws that allow discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community and restrict access to birth control are forcing all persons in the United States to follow Christian rule.

The individual is the one who determines how to balance law with religion suggestions.  For example, gay marriage is lawful per a ruling of the United States’ Supreme Court, but those opposed to this civic contract are not forced to participate. A Catholic woman cannot be forced to marry another woman, no more so than a woman should be forced to marry any man. Similarly, those opposed to abortion are welcome to stand in opposition, but religious beliefs cannot be the basis for a law that comes between a woman, her health, and her doctor. So too, laws exist that say that I can own a gun, but I can also choose to do no such thing.

Religious liberty laws, such as one in South Dakota that allows adoption agencies to discriminate against gay couples, set the stage for religious followers to force religious beliefs upon others as if they were laws. Likely, you heard of Kentucky clerk Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples because it “was against her religion.” A florist, a baker, and a candlestick maker have also gotten caught up in the fray. (Okay, the candlestick maker was a joke, but you get the point.)

Please let me be clear that not all Christians take such discriminatory actions against their fellow persons, but some do, and in doing so, they are forcing their beliefs upon others. I also have scruples with the saying “hate the sin, love the sinner” because it opens up individuals to undue judgment, and gives judgemental Christians an unjustified sense that they are entitled to tell others how to live. However, this saying is not nearly as problematic as individuals who openly discriminate against others because they believe they lawfully can because of their religion. The saying isn’t as problematic as laws that are designed to expressly cater to one religion instead serving all people represented by the government.

Because of the discriminatory actions of some Christian business owners, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing some stores, and time will only tell if the now conservative-leaning Supreme Court will continue to 1. recognize that religious edicts do not constitute United States’ law and 2. that religion does not determine who is and isn’t welcome in the United States. I personally do not have a sense of how the the Supreme Court will rule given that they sided with Hobby Lobby’s claim that as a Christian-owned store they should not be required to pay for contraceptive coverage in their employee’s insurance plans. Nevertheless, I hope that the courts see this discrimination, even if the discriminators’ claims are founded in “religious liberty,” as unlawful.  

It is true that no artist, baker, or photographer must accept all jobs they are offered. If you’ve ever tried to book a DJ or a photographer, you know their schedules are filled quickly. But it’s one thing for an artist to turn down a job because they do not have the capacity to perform the requested service, but quite another to turn away a willing customer because the artist is passing judgment on a customer.

As in any business transaction, most likely all the baker knows about the customer ordering a wedding cake are the small details shared willingly by the customer. The baker does not need to know anything more than when the cake needs to be available, what flavor, where to deliver the cake, how big of a cake to bake, and maybe a few details about how the customer would like the cake decorated. So the simplest solution seemingly would be for customers to only offer barebone details. However, weddings should be happy, loving occasions—engaged couples want to tell the world that they have committed to their someone and are having a ceremony to celebrate their love.

I can’t image what it would have been like during the two years that my partner and I were actively planning our wedding if I couldn’t have told our vendors his name. Because of my privilege as a straight person, I didn’t even have to think about the consequences of introducing him as my partner (and I can have his picture at my desk at work without fear of being fired). I could also have called my hometown Catholic church to schedule a ceremony; gay couples do not have this option.

When a Christian store owner decrees that someone is unwelcome in the store because they are black gay, the owner is saying that their rights as a business owner and as a Christian are worth more than the rights of others. The right of the owner to pass judgment on their fellow person is worth more than the right of the couple to be civilly and legally married. [Side comment: Christian silence on racism continues their complicity in inequality within the United States, but we’ll discuss that more at a later time.] And if stores choose to reject money from good paying customers simply because of a lack of understanding and compassion, then they could do society the courtesy of posting signs in the windows similar to those used during Jim Crow that read “No Blacks Allowed.”

At least that way, I’d know which stores to boycott.

No matter how this American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU’s) lawsuit and the various others end, legislation cannot make churches marry gay couples or have openly gay members of the clergy, but the court’s decisions can continue to influence society’s overall acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in public spaces.

A court decision cannot change a religion’s opinions, but it can provide secular security for those omitted or at least hidden from religious organizations. A court decision cannot instill kindness and understanding within the defendant, but it can make the world more welcoming for those who are rejected by religions and their members simply because of who they love.

Legal scholars will debate the merits and consequences of both sides, but I believe this debate must be settled by balance. The United States must continue to find ways to balance the 1st amendment’s guarantee that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” and the promise to all people for “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” The United States’ government cannot tell religions how to operate, but the laws of the United States must exist to ensure equal treatment under the law for all citizens (although we have a long way to go to fix our laws to remove institutionalized oppression).

While no laws can force others to give up their preconceived notions about another group, laws can help facilitate safety and opportunity access. Therefore, our laws cannot bend to Christian demands, but must continue to operate for the benefit all of individuals no matter their religious or nonreligious affiliations. Religion may be able to make demands of its followers, but the laws of the nation must be designed with the understanding that “the right to swing my fist ends at the tip of your nose.”