Balancing Religious Freedom and Civil Rights

The adoption last week of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) has set off a loud public debate about religious freedom and civil rights. The debate is over the best balance between our cherished beliefs in both religious freedom and civil rights, which includes tolerance of those with religious beliefs different than ours. A standard formulation of the scope of individual freedom is that it is our right to live and do as we like as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others to do the same. How we should put meat on those bones is the essence of ongoing, serious public debate.

I have blogged on this challenging topic a number of times starting with the following in November 2008: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2008/11/11/church-and-state-in-america/ and followed in April 2010 by: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/when-values-clash/

and in August 2013: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2013/08/30/liberty-and-the-overly-prescriptive-state/

and in December 2013: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2013/12/20/more-on-the-balance-between-the-public-and-private-sectors/

and most recently in February 2014: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2014/02/28/arizona-and-religious-and-person-liberty/

Indiana’s RFRA is similar but not identical to the law of the same name signed into law by President Clinton in 1993 with overwhelming bipartisan support. These laws and other efforts to balance religious and other individual freedoms against the expectation of tolerance are based on the First Amendment to the US Constitution reproduced below (the first item in the Bill of Rights) and the guarantee of equal protection under the law contained in the Fourteenth Amendment adopted after the Civil War, in part to remove discrimination against African Americans. Success in establishing a good balance is critical to a healthy, vibrant and free civil society and depends more on social attitudes than on laws. David Brooks provides an insightful and balanced discussion of this issue: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/31/opinion/david-brooks-religious-liberty-and-equality.html?_r=4

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First Amendment

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

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It is quite beyond my limited legal knowledge to tease out exactly what the Indiana law provided (it has already been amended to address the fears that it was an excuse for discrimination). Much has been written on the subject, some of it uninformative and/or inflammatory, others wise and insightful. I would like instead to outline the spirit and attitude of a proper balance between religious freedom and civil rights that makes sense to me.

Most of us assume that our freedom to believe what we choose and to express those beliefs publicly includes what some others might disagree with or consider “wrong” or obnoxious, such as racial prejudice. Freedom of speech means nothing if not the right to state what most of us consider wrong. The right to say stupid or repugnant things should never be confused with accepting or encouraging such views. Particular condemnation should be directed to those who use their freedom of speech purposely to offend rather than to defend their beliefs. The best defense against bigotry, whether racist or homophobic, is to use our freedom of speech to counter such views and to promote the virtues of respect, diversity, and tolerance of alternative beliefs (as long as they do not limit our own). In short, building broadly shared attitudes of respect toward the rights of our fellow men (and women) are necessary for the maintenance of a decent, free society.

What might this mean in practice? In my private life I should never have to associate with people I don’t like. I should not have to invite them into my home or my club. It was absolutely right that the Boy Scouts of America were allowed to exclude gays and that we were allowed verbally to attack them for such misguided behavior. They are gradually coming around to a more enlightened policy with better long run results than if forced by law to open up to members they did not want. Churches are quite rightly not forced to accept members that do not embrace their beliefs or otherwise satisfy whatever their membership requirements are.

The above examples are obvious. The difficulties begin to arise when we move outside our homes and private groups. Aside from the obvious question of why two lesbians in Texas insisted on the services of a photographer for their wedding who refused to accept their request (were they looking for a fight or the best photographer), I think any service provider should be free to choose their customers just as customers are free to choose where to shop. While mafia dons and other murderers and bad people have a right to legal representation, why should a particular objecting lawyer be required to provide it?

Should a Christian bookstore be required to sell the bible or whatever to atheists or Jews? For starters it would be quite contrary to their goals and evangelical nature to refuse to do so, but should they have the choice? Should Muslims be required to touch and serve pork or should Mormons be required to tend the cocktail and coffee bars of their employers? Once again it is hard to see why this is raised to the level of public policy. If a Mormon doesn’t want to serve alcohol (though it wasn’t a problem for the Mormon owned Marriot Hotel to do so), she doesn’t have to and shouldn’t work for a bar. For larger operations, such as restaurants with a bar, it is not that difficult for the manager to assign employees to tasks that respect their religious or ethical beliefs. The free market, profit motive would lead employers to do just that.

For many, the pace of progress against discrimination in the more public sphere of commerce and certainly in government bodies was not fast enough leading to the adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce; but exempted private clubs and the renting of the bed room in my basement. If you are open for business to the general public you are not allowed to discriminate on the above bases. The LGBT community has been working to add sexual orientation to the above list, something that was missing in the original Indiana RFRA law.

The recent Hobby Lobby decision of the Supreme Court (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby) concerned the mandate in Obama Care for employers to provide government specified contraceptives as part of the employee health plans. The Christian family owners objected to the mandatory inclusion in the list of what is often called the morning after pill. Raising wages sufficient to compensate employees for the cost of buying their own insurance would sacrifice the tax exception (i.e., subsidy) of employee provided health insurance. The Court ruled to allow closely held for-profit corporations to be exempt from a law its owners religiously object to if there is a less restrictive means of furthering the law’s interest. Such exemptions are allowed for churches and directly religious organizations but this was the first time that the Court has recognized a for-profit corporation’s claim of religious belief.

This whole situation has more objectionable parts than I can count. First, it is bad policy to give a tax break for employer offered health insurance. For one thing, tying heath insurance to ones employer makes it more difficult for employees to change jobs and increases the cost to them of losing a job. Second, it is outrageous that the federal government is dictating the list of contraceptives that an insurance policy must provide and that everyone must have such policies. This is before we get to the issue of which, if any, private companies should be exempt from such requirements and for what reasons. Such micro management of our lives by the government has gone way too far and makes the balancing of rights I have been discussing much more complicated and difficult. A tradition of polite accommodation of differences generally trumps efforts to spell it all out in law.

Marriage equality, i.e., extending the same right to marry enjoyed by heterosexual couples, takes away no rights from traditional couples other than perhaps to be spared the anger/horror/sadness over something someone else is doing. Get over it. Having to serve LGBT couples commercially does not imply agreeing or disagreeing with their status. Fortunately society is moving rapidly to accept the virtue of extending the institution of marriage to LGBT couples. If marriage is a good thing for loving committed couples, it should be available to all such couples. Those people and religious groups that continue to disapprove are free to as long as they do not deprive others of their freedoms and rights.

About wcoats

Dr. Warren L. Coats specializes in advising central banks on monetary policy, and in the development of their capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy. He is retired from the International Monetary Fund, where, as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department, he led missions to over twenty countries. Before then, he served as Visiting Economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and to the World Bank, and was Assistant Prof of Economics at the Univ. of Virginia from 1970-75. Most recently he was Senior Monetary Policy Advisor to the Central Bank of Iraq; an IMF consultant to the central banks of Afghanistan, Kenya and Zimbabwe; and a Deloitte/USAID advisor to the Government of South Sudan. He is currently a member of the Editorial Board of the Cayman Financial Review and until the end of 2013 was a member of the IMF program team for Afghanistan. His most recent book is entitled "One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina."
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2 Responses to Balancing Religious Freedom and Civil Rights

  1. Mike Welty says:

    Warren. Thanks for your contribution to civil discourse. We surely need more of it

  2. Joe Cobb says:

    Of course, if a Believer thinks the Laws of God are for all of mankind, and obedience is not to be scoffed at, and particularly if the Believer thinks God is a wrathful deity that might inflict group-punishment, as the Old Testament and the Qur’an report, then a Believer might fear for his own family if sinners and non-believers offend the deity. Tolerance is not an option, in the Believer’s worldview. I think polytheists do not have this idea from the Abrahamic tradition about God’s Law applying to all mankind.

    Frankly, it creeps me out a bit to think Believers have this view of a 3-dimension reality that not only has all the natural laws of physics I have learned about, but also a complete other dimension in which the spirits and god dwells, and that the natural laws of physics can be changed around or suspended by the forces coming from this additional dimension (like stopping the sun in the sky during a battle, as if the rotation of the earth would not cause some problems with the conservation of momentum while the earth stopped temporarily so the Israelites could win a battle).

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