Do business owners in Washington have the legal right to discriminate against others based on their personal religious beliefs? This is essentially the topic explored at the recent Community Conversation on “When Faith and Rights Collide.”
This gathering drew people from all walks of life in our community: religious/nonreligious, gay/straight and young/old. Encouragingly, I concluded roughly half the people in attendance understood civil rights trump religious beliefs. That those who shared this mindset were not in the minority indicated progress is happening.
What was unfortunate was the level of misinformation expressed by those who believe their religious freedoms are being eroded and that society is in moral freefall. No attempt at redirecting the conversation to the relevant topic seemed to deter them from rehashing their religious objections to homosexuality itself.
Remarks included dismal comparisons of homosexuality to pedophilia, sinful “lifestyles,” declarations that gay men are harbingers of disease, and that someone’s daughter had an abortion which caused her to become a lesbian. One individual even declared homosexuality is a religion, but Christianity a philosophy.
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The recent passing of Referendum 74 was cited as the source of conflict between business owners and same-sex couples (though “sexual orientation” was added as a protected class to the state’s “Freedom from discrimination” statute in 2006).
The concept some couldn’t comprehend or contemplate was that none of these arguments has merit. State law expressly prohibits discrimination against protected classes by businesses, which are separate legal entities that don’t have the same privileges enjoyed by individuals.
Numerous Supreme Court cases have affirmed a person’s religious beliefs do not grant the right to act on those beliefs when they are contrary to laws in matters of interest to the state or abridge the rights of others.
As was apparent in these conversations, many falsely believe that as the majority their rights trump the rights of others. What they fail to understand is majority rule isn’t the way things work in America. In our democracy, we have systems in place protecting the rights of the minority.
I’m confident the courts will find business owners are acting outside the law when they refuse customers based on their personal beliefs. In writing the majority opinion on the recent Defense of Marriage Act ruling, which was struck down as unconstitutional, Supreme Court Justice Kennedy declared DOMA interfered “with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages.”
Essentially, this translates into: No matter how sincere and deeply held one’s beliefs, these are not a valid excuse to break the law. To allow otherwise deprives people of their “personhood and dignity” and treats them as second-class citizens. Arguments over abridgement of religious freedom lack substance. Whatever one thinks about the morality of homosexuality, it is irrelevant Until those who argue against equality come to understand these concepts, I don’t see any way there can be a mutually satisfactory solution to the conflict. My experience confirmed there is much work to be done to educate others so a productive conversation can be held.
Jennifer Baker is the co-founder and vice president of the Tri-City Freethinkers.