The other day, I had the good fortune to meet Charlie, the 17-year-old nephew of Andrea, a longtime professional ally of mine. Andrea had lined up this visit for Charlie’s spring break, explaining that Charlie would be “over the moon” if we could find some time to talk about church-state separation issues.
I would do anything for Andrea, whose professional partnership over many years has been invaluable. I’m also aware that Americans United members skew older, so I jumped at the opportunity to engage in this focus group of one to learn more about what generates passion for our issues in a young adult!
Charlie began by describing himself as a freethinker and noting that he had found Germany, where he had recently studied as an exchange student, to be more sympathetic than America to his perspective.
I then raised the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, which is pending before the Supreme Court. A Colorado bakery insists that it has free speech – and religious freedom – rights to refuse to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, despite Colorado’s law barring discrimination against LGBTQ people in public accommodations.
I was surprised when church-state separationist Charlie, who by this point had also identified as bisexual, declared sympathy for the baker, in part out of his commitment to everyone’s right to their own belief system.
I’ve thought a lot about Charlie’s reaction to this case, especially because this is such a critical moment in our country’s battle over what “religious freedom” means. I believe that religious freedom means the right to believe what you want – or not to believe at all – and to practice your religion (if you have one) in a way that enables us all to coexist peacefully in the shared spaces of our intentionally pluralistic society.
Conservative religious groups, however, are attempting to redefine religious freedom to mean the freedom to discriminate against those who don’t share your religious beliefs. It boils down to religious freedom for all versus religious freedom for a select few.
If you need proof that there is a concerted effort to redefine religious freedom this narrow way, look no further than Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a self-described Christian legal organization with an annual budget exceeding $50 million. Not only is ADF defending the bakery in Masterpiece, but it has filed over a dozen cases to win a legal right for businesses to discriminate against women and people who identify as LGBTQ.
Look also at the Trump-Pence administration, which is finding countless ways to support discrimination in the name of religion. What scares me is that groups like ADF and the Trump-Pence political conservatives who are in lockstep with them may well be making inroads in the court of public opinion. What are we to do about it? Here are some thoughts.
We need messengers who are people of faith, including Christians, to declare that religious freedom is a fundamental American principle that was never meant to allow us to discriminate against others. Clergy need to explain that this redefinition of religious freedom undermines the very value it claims to defend.
We need to draw attention to the people who are harmed. Do a Google image search for “Masterpiece Cakeshop,” and you will see nine pictures of the baker before you see even one of the couple whose dignity was denied. We win hearts when we convey what is at stake for real people – not just abstract legal principles.
We need to explain through specific examples the broader impact of allowing discrimination in the name of religion. As a brief AU filed in the Masterpiece case asks, “May a restaurant deny service to a Muslim who wears a Hijab or a Sikh man who wears a Turban? …. And what about the recently widowed Catholic whose Protestant spouse wanted a Protestant funeral. May she be barred from all the nearby funeral homes on account of her faith, so that she is unable to find a place to honor and say goodbye to her spouse in accordance with the dictates of her beloved’s faith?”
The good news is that after further discussion, Charlie came to see the dangers of allowing religious freedom to mean you can impose your religious beliefs on others. The other good news is that no matter what the outcome, Masterpiece will give all of us the opportunity to have a much-needed conversation about religious freedom.
Why not start by telling your children or grandchildren that you have just bought them the “gift of freedom” – a membership in Americans United?
Rachel K. Laser is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.