Freedom to Oppress: Religious Persecution Versus Religious Privilege

religious freedom

A week or so ago, I shared the questions on my Law and Policy take-home final, and a couple of commenters wondered whether I would share student responses.

Although I won’t share others, I was struck by one student’s essay on the second question, which involved the principle of religious liberty. The question read:

The First Amendment protects religious liberty. Over the past few years, Americans have engaged in heated public debates about the nature and extent of that liberty. Some people argue that requiring employers to provide health insurance that includes contraception, or requiring businesses like florists or bakers to serve same-sex customers, is a violation of the religious liberty of those whose religions teach that contraception or homosexuality is a sin. Others disagree. What is the proper definition of “religious liberty”—that is, how far should the free exercise of religion extend in America’s diverse religious landscape? What religiously-motivated actions can government legitimately limit, and what are the justifications for those limits?

This student suggested that many people confuse “freedom” with “freedom to oppress,” and went on to explain the difference.

I hadn’t seen it phrased quite that way before, but I think he’s on to something.

I thought about his essay when I read in the Washington Post that Vice-President Mike Pence had told participants at a World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians in D.C. that “no other faith group faces more persecution than Christians,” and lauded Trump’s recent RFRA-like Executive Order.

Mike Pence shares a definition of “persecution” with other fundamentalist believers that beautifully illustrates my student’s observation: “persecution” in Pence-speak goes well beyond the actual mistreatment of Christians abroad; for him, “persecution” has always included the inability to use the coercive power of the state to impose his particular version of Christianity on others here at home.

Think of the horrors: the nasty courts have prevented public schools from requiring (Christian) prayer in classrooms occupied by children of diverse faiths, and have upheld the teaching of science, rather than the Christian doctrine of Creationism, in public school science classes.

Those same courts have required government to recognize marriages by sinful same-sex couples  (who can now file joint tax returns, just like real married couples), and they’ve insisted that when retail establishments open for business, they actually do business with anyone willing to pay for their merchandise.

These “persecuted” Christians must live under a legal regime that accords Jews and Muslims and Hindus and atheists the same civil rights that bible-believing Christians have! A society where stores like Target can allow transgender people use the bathroom when nature calls! A society that allows women to follow their own religious and moral beliefs about reproduction, rather than the Word Of God as Revealed to Mike Pence and his fellow fundamentalists.

I’m sure it is only by the grace of their God that these poor, persecuted Christians can continue to live here.

I would completely understand if they moved en masse to somewhere like Ghana or Uganda, where the government understands the threat posed by homosexuality and uppity women. But of course, the inhabitants of those countries are black, and a lot of  Pence Christians aren’t too sure God likes black people…

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on May 13, 2017]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

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