I’m a Baptist living in a state with millions of Christians of all denominations. A 2010 study showed that more Muslims lived in Texas than any other state. The numbers of Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists living here are also among the highest in the nation.
Texas is, in fact, one of the most culturally and religiously diverse states in the nation. A big reason for this great diversity is that the Texas and U.S. Constitutions protect religious freedom for everyone, regardless of their faith. Religious freedom is a fundamental right for everyone in America.
I’m proud of all of this. But I’m disturbed when people argue that the law should permit individuals or businesses to claim religious freedom as an excuse to discriminate against others.
We saw this play out recently with the unfortunate repeal of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, but we’re also hearing the same arguments in support of new laws that would allow individuals, businesses, and even government officials to use religion to discriminate.
That’s wrong and counter to everything I believe as a Christian, American, and Texan.
Supporters of such legislation like to point to shop owners who don’t want to serve people they personally object to for religious reasons.
But that trivializes what’s at stake here. What we’re really talking about is allowing people to be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, and denied public services simply because who they are or whom they love offends someone else’s personal religious beliefs.
That’s not standing up for religious freedom. That’s excusing and even condoning discrimination.
We hear arguments in favor of religious objections mostly when anti-discrimination laws protect our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender neighbors. Discrimination against anyone is wrong. Period. But don’t be fooled into thinking that LGBT people will be the only targets if our laws allow the use of religion to discriminate. We know only too well how religion can be misused for such bad works.
After all, folks have relied on the Bible to justify some pretty horrible things in our nation’s history. Slaveholders, for example, asked who could question the Word of God when the Bible said, “slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling” (Ephesians 6:5).
Most Americans today realize such arguments are a shameful part of our history. But now confusing religious freedom with a right to discriminate could drag us back toward those days.
For example, we know that some extreme religious movements preach white supremacy and anti-Semitism. Should people who have those beliefs be able to fire or deny services to someone simply because they’re African-American or Jewish? Most of us surely would say no. But imagine the problems created when the law opens the door to using religion as an excuse to discriminate against anyone. Where do you draw the line? Which discrimination is allowed, and which isn’t?
The problem is even clearer when it involves government. If public officials can refuse to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples for religious reasons, then don’t be surprised when some object to granting licenses to people who have been previously divorced.
Opening the door to using religion as a license to discriminate would call into question numerous state and federal laws that bar discrimination based on characteristics like sex and even religion itself. If an employer believes women working outside the home is sinful, should he be permitted to fire or refuse to hire them? What about workers who belong to a different religion?
That’s not the kind of Texas I want, and laws that would open the door to these dangers are reckless and wrong.
Moreover, if the issue here really is protecting religious freedom, new laws are simply unnecessary. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by the Legislature in 1999, successfully balances the right to religious liberty with the right to be free from unfair discrimination.
Texas must and already does protect the right of individuals to live their personal lives according to their religious beliefs. But allowing people to use religion to refuse to obey laws that protect everyone from harm would put an individual’s religious beliefs ahead of the common good.