The Supreme Court and Religious Freedom

Updated on December 9, 2017
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Tom is retired & has worked with people of all backgrounds, beliefs, & points of view. His interests lie in politics, writing & woodworking.

Our Religious Make-up

According to a recent poll done in July of this year by ABC News/Beliefnet, 83% of Americans identify themselves as Christians. This total is spread out over many denominations. Of course our population is also comprised of people of other faiths such as Jews, Muslims, and others— although their combined numbers by percentage are relatively small. While it is safe to say the U.S. is a Christian nation, our Constitution prohibits the adoption of Christianity as a national religion.

The 1st Amendment

The 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution states, among other things, that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". As we have no religion given preference by our main governing document and since our Constitution both limits and guarantees religious freedom, we have a dilemma. Clearly, the Constitution was written to preserve the right of every faith to a robust existence and the freedom of its members to openly practice their faith without any fear of persecution. Indeed, this was after all, one of the reasons the Pilgrims, and others migrated here. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any specific guidance of how to resolve conflicts on just how far individual rights extend. What happens when the rights of different people are clashing?

The Issues

We now find ourselves with several of these rights interfering with each other. Individual religious rights are in conflict with both group and individual rights in the public marketplace.

1) One case involves both individual members of and the gay population at large. A Colorado baker refused to provide his services to a lesbian couple based on his faith's disapproval of homosexuality.

2) In New Mexico, we have a recent case with a Walgreen's pharmacist refusing to fill a young woman's prescription for birth control medication because of his "personal beliefs." Even though it was the girl's mother who was picking up the prescription, the pharmacist thought his own rights took precedence over his client's. This was strictly a moral judgement not a concern of some legal impropriety. Walgreen's only offered to transfer the prescription to another pharmacy.

This case is not yet part of the case before the Supreme Court, but could eventually be affected by the final ruling.

Overreach?

Here we come to the difficult dilemma of competing rights. It seems only fair that every individual has the right to contract with the service provider of their choice without fear of prejudice. We all make our selections of vendors for the same reasons: Product quality, reliable service and price - among others. Why then should it be allowed that someone is refused service based on faith instead of law.? The answer is really quite straightforward. If your faith cannot accept homosexuality, you can choose to be heterosexual. If you are against contraception, you need not use it. No one can force you to engage in any practices or activities that your beliefs prohibit. However, those rights do not carryover when offering your services in the public marketplace. You do not have the right to impose your religious viewpoints on the public at large. In both your personal life and decisions these rights are rock solid. One can even refuse to support family members who violate your religious code but legalized discrimination must never be allowed.

The Consequences

If the Supreme Court should rule in favor of these faith-based plaintiffs, it will be a very dark day in our nation. What other more serious implications will ensure if prejudice is allowed to become the law of the land under the guise of religious freedom? Will any Christian in any business be allowed to refuse service to Jews or Muslims because they are not Jesus-centered faiths? Of course, these faiths could not be banned, but it will be OK to limit their commerce with legalized discrimination. This discrimination could then be allowed solely at the business owner's discretion.

This concept would also allow faith-based judgements on divorced people, interracial marriages and anything else that might be interpreted as deficient according to your own faith. Would we allow polygamy or older men marrying thirteen year old girls because their God so instructs? Where will the line be drawn and who will draw it?

If you believe that the wife is subservient to the husband as the Church is to God do you get to control all of your wife's decisions and actions? Will women's hard-earned freedoms be lost at their mate's decisions? What restrictive laws could be passed in a male, Christian dominated Congress and upheld by staunchly conservative justices at all levels of the judiciary?

Conclusions

Hopefully, the high court's present makeup will prevent a return to legalized discrimination. If President Trump is in a position to appoint another Supreme Court Justice our culture and nation could be turned upside down. Imagine our Supreme Court converted to a religious tribunal to the detriment of us all? Each citizen should start calling the Supreme Court phone # +1 202-479-3000 and urge the Court to protect the proper balance between the rights of consumers and those who provide needed services.

Lastly...

According to the Declaration of Independence, all Americans are guaranteed certain "inalienable rights". Among which, of course, is "The Pursuit of Happiness". One way citizens pursue happiness is through the purchase of goods and services. As long as negotiated terms are met we expect delivery of said goods and services in exchange for prompt payment. There is no room here for a values or lifestyle test. Vendors and tradespeople can set their own personal views, but cannot impose them on others around them. Fair and equal treatment of all potential customers is part of doing business. If you are unable to work with citizenry as a whole and treat them all with dignity and respect perhaps a different vocation is in order.

Over time laws found to be discriminatory have been struck down and new ones enacted to help insure equality. We cannot abide the appointment of extremist judges of either camp. Right now though, the danger is coming from the Right. There is a real danger of judges coming to the Court with a predisposition to end the separation of Church and State. This could lead us to the formation of a Christian version of a Middle East Sheikdom - just more subtly. We must not underestimate the importance and implication of this case and others like it that are sure to follow.

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    • TomsTwoCents profile image
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      Tom 4 months ago from New Mexico

      Sorry Ron, I'm afraid my typing skills are somewhat lacking! What l was trying to say is that each person is just another potential customer, no more no less. The problems that trying to thread the needle with exceptions based on faith are too big to be ignored. We need clear and defined rules to balance all of our rights.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 4 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Some comments on several of the points you make in your presentation:

      1. “The answer is really quite straightforward.”

      Not by a long shot! The answer seems straightforward only if you implicitly assume that your point of view is normative. Those who think differently certainly don’t concede that.

      2. “If your faith cannot accept homosexuality, you can choose to be heterosexual.”

      OK. And if your faith cannot accept drug addiction, you can choose not to use cocaine. By this line of reasoning, you should have no objection to others using or selling cocaine, heroin, and other addictive and life-destroying drugs. So, all laws regulating sale and use of opioids should be taken off the books.

      This approach reflects a common fallacy – that the effects of the private practices of individuals on the community as a whole need not, and indeed should not, be taken into account.

      One could say, for example, “if your faith cannot except speeding, don’t speed.” In this case, I hope it’s obvious that leaving people free to make a personal choice whether or not to go 100 mph on the highway might have unfortunate effects on society as a whole. But what about same sex marriage, for example? By the same line of reasoning we would say, “if your faith cannot accept marriage between two, three, or maybe 20 individuals of various genders, just don’t do it.” The unstated implication is that there is no impact on society as a whole if others do it.

      But what evidence proves that to be true? Until the late 20th century, all human cultures have been unanimous in the belief that officially legitimizing marriage between persons of the same sex would be harmful to the society. What is the evidence that such an understanding of reality, although once universal, has now been proven to have no validity?

      Until just a few years ago, the definition of marriage as being between male and female has persisted across all societies throughout human history. Making same sex marriage legal necessarily redefines the historical concept of marriage. Again, what evidence, besides our modern arrogance that proclaims we now have some special wisdom that was denied to previous generations, is offered to prove that such a redefinition won’t have harmful long-term effects on the institution of marriage, and therefore on all members of the society?

      3. “You do not have the right to impose your religious viewpoints on the public at large.”

      But that is exactly what your approach does. The idea that a society can and should proceed in its public life without reference to God is an inherently religious assertion about the nature of God (if we can safely ignore God, He’s obviously not the ruler of the universe).

      The approach you advocate implicitly demands that everyone in our society bow the knee to that concept of God being a cosmic nonentity, and refuses to tolerate any dissent from that view. Thus, behavior in the public square that’s based on any other understanding of the nature of God (for example, that He is the source of all wisdom, and therefore should be obeyed in all things) is illegitimate.

      The result of this way of thinking is that customers who have a multitude of choices about where to get their wedding cake baked can single out a baker who has a different belief system than their own (which is what was done in the case you mention), and use the force of law to compel that merchant to either violate his conscience and participate in an activity he believes is utterly abhorrent to God, or go out of business.

      My purpose in this rather lengthy comment is not to argue for a particular answer to this ”difficult dilemma of competing rights,” but to emphasize that the assertion that “the answer is really quite straightforward” for any right-thinking person is nonsense. The issues are a lot deeper than that.

      Getting to that answer must start with taking seriously the viewpoint of the other side rather than implicitly assuming that your own point of view is the only logical one.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 4 months ago from Auburn, WA

      Great points.

      Evangelicals are always taking about "the law," particularly when it comes to illegal immigration and the 2nd Amendment. But when it comes to a gay couple needing a service, the law does not matter, only the owner's "conscience."

      The 1st Amendment does not give a commercial business license to offer services to the general public but then, in violation of a state’s public accommodation law, refuse to provide services to particular customers based on their race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, or any other characteristic.

      I don't know why a business would not want to service someone who has not broken the law.

      Important topic. Thanks.

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