Americans United is in court fighting the noxious idea that “religious freedom” gives a person the right to deny services or health care to someone else. Your rights, which, in the case of health care, might include your ability to receive life-saving treatment, should never depend on where a stranger worships, and we intend to make that clear in the courts.
This attempt to pervert the meaning of religious freedom, spearheaded by the Trump-Pence administration, is appalling. And, unfortunately, it’s spreading. Some people who work in the public sector are trying it too.
Consider Craig Northcott, the district attorney in southcentral Tennessee’s Coffee County. A videotape recently surfaced of Northcott addressing a March 2018 Christian conference saying his office does not treat allegations of domestic abuse involving same-sex couples the same way it does heterosexual couples, as state law requires. Why? Because of Northcott’s religious beliefs.
By way of a little background, Tennessee law mandates that people convicted of domestic abuse can be subjected to special forms of punishment. For example, they can have firearms taken from them forever and be subject to enhanced monitoring. But Northcott said he does not seek those penalties when same-sex couples are involved because he doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of their relationships.
Addressing the topic “The Local Church’s Role in Government” during a conference sponsored by a Christian ministry, Northcott attacked the U.S. Supreme Court for legalizing marriage equality, asserting that the nation is ruled by “five people in black dresses.”
“So the social engineers on the Supreme Court decided that we now have homosexual marriage,” Northcott said. “I disagree with them. What do I do with domestic assaults?” Northcott said his answer is to treat allegations that involve same-sex couples as run-of-mill assaults, meaning those found guilty don’t qualify for the enhanced penalties.
“The reason that there’s enhanced punishment on domestic violence is to recognize and protect the sanctity of marriage,” Northcott continued. “And I said, ‘There’s no marriage to protect,’ so I don’t prosecute them as domestics.”
During the religious conference, Northcott referred to himself as a “good Christian man as DA” and added, “Y’all need to know who your DA is. You give us a lot of authority … We can choose to prosecute anything. We can choose not to prosecute anything.”
Northcott has a history of saying inflammatory things. News Channel 5 in Nashville has reported that earlier this year, he wrote on Facebook that all Muslims are “evil because they profess a commitment to an evil belief system.” He also asserted that Muslims, atheists and non-Christians have no rights under the U.S. Constitution.
“There are no Constitutional rights,” Northcott wrote. “There are only God-given rights protected by the Constitution. If you don’t believe in the one true God, there is nothing to protect.”
Tennessee Equality Project, an LGBTQ rights group, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations have called for Northcott to be removed from office. In addition, a group of 350 attorneys who practice in Tennessee wrote to the state’s Board of Professional Responsibility June 5 and officially lodged a complaint against Northcott. They called his remarks “unacceptable” and said his “unethical” conduct reaches the “highest level of prosecutorial misconduct and abuse of discretion.”
“We find this disturbing and unacceptable on multiple levels, the least of which being Mr. Northcott’s misunderstanding of domestic violence law in the State of Tennessee, where marriage or even romantic status is not an essential element for a charge of domestic assault,” the letter said.
State officials have since confirmed that they’ve opened an investigation on Northcott. Good. A law enforcement official’s first duty is to treat all people fairly and apply the law equally. If your religion precludes you from doing that, it’s time to resign.