By Tom Krattenmaker
We need a more honest conversation about discrimination and religious freedom, wherever our sympathies lie. Only when we get clear about our intentions and their ramifications—and the other side’s, too—will we be able to advance the debate.
North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest provides a good example of how we twist the truth to minimize the offenses we perpetrate and exaggerate the affronts we face as we debate LGBT rights and religious freedom. Forest denies any discriminatory purpose behind the controversial law recently passed in his state, which blocks cities and counties from protecting LGBT people from discrimination. “Our bill does not discriminate against anybody,” Forest insists.
A federal court begs to differ. On Thursday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in neighboring Virginia ruled that it amounts to unlawful discrimination to force—as the North Carolina law does—transgendered students use bathrooms corresponding with their biological sex.
Politicians are famous for twisting language, but this duplicity trickles down, too. Consider the barber in California, Richard Hernandez, who cites religious reasons for refusing to cut a transgendered woman’s hair—and has the gall to say, “It is not our intention to discriminate against anyone based on sexual orientation or anything like that.”
Of course he is discriminating. Of course discrimination is the intent of the North Carolina law and a similar measure passed in Mississippi.
They should be more candid. In truth, the social contract seems to accept that some limited forms of discrimination are acceptable and inevitable, which is why the LGBT rights movement is not seriously pushing for legislation requiring all Christian pastors to perform same-sex weddings.
So let’s hear more from the North Carolina lieutenant governor and California barber and those who support them. Why should they be allowed to discriminate? What can they say to convince the unconvinced that this discrimination is necessary and morally acceptable?
Some clarifying is also needed from those of us who rightly call out discrimination in situations like these. “Religious freedom,” of course, is the rallying cry of people like Forest who seek to protect those who would discriminate against LGBT people. In our advocacy for equal rights for gay, lesbian, and transgendered people, are we opposing religious freedom?
That’s a losing position in a country that enshrines religious freedom as one of its founding principles, which is why you will be hard pressed to find anyone declaring that he or she is against religious freedom. But if we are being candid we’ll admit that religious freedom often doesn’t matter much to many of us—certainly not the form being pressed by conservative Christians these days.
In these conversations, we tend to consign “religious freedom” to air quotes and scare quotes (not without reason). We pay it lip service but are perfectly willing to dispense with it the minute it bumps up against other principles nearer and dearer to liberal hearts, like the right for people to be free of discrimination.
A less flattering way to put it is that we pay lip service to religious freedom but in instances where it is most inconvenient and, thus, matters the most, we relegate it to second fiddle—or fire it from the orchestra altogether.
As with discrimination, frankness is required in this conversation. Why do we seek to curtail religious freedom? How can we persuade our argument partners this is acceptable? Surely religious freedom can’t be limited just to pastors for whom religion is a profession as well as a faith. But how far must it extend, and how much collateral damage before we declare “too much!”?
Now that we are being honest, perhaps we can start to understand one another better and figure a few things out. Other than through the brute force of political power, how can we protectors of LGBT rights persuade conservative Christians to keep discrimination to an absolute and unavoidable minimum? How can we tailor compromises that protect sexual minorities and Christian freedom of conscience (albeit imperfectly) at the same time?
As for religious freedom, please let us skeptics hear convincing assurances that its invoking is more than a calculated power play–more than the indefensible notion that anything short of total victory for conservative Christians’ worldview constitutes a violation of religious freedom.
Let’s muster more honesty, and serve it with respect. Only then can we begin to craft the compromises and accommodations that will enable us to honor one cherished right without trampling a different cherished right. Only then will we make progress toward a peaceful resolution of the stalemated argument raging right now between two of our most important American freedoms.
A member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors, Tom Krattenmaker is communications director at Yale Divinity School and a writer specializing in religion in public life. His forthcoming book is titled Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower.