Religious dissenters must be free to follow beliefs

Travis Weber is Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Columbus Dispatch on April 1, 2015.

Should the Supreme Court alter the law concerning same-sex “marriage” later this year, it will be even more important to protect those who do not believe such relationships can be “marriages” at all from being forced to violate their beliefs. These would-be dissenters must be afforded the right to disagree and the freedom to live in accord with their religious convictions.

The American public overwhelmingly supports this idea. Recent nationwide polling tells us that 81 percent of Americans believe government should leave people free to follow their beliefs about marriage as they live their daily lives at work and in the way they run their businesses.

Yet around the country, these dissenters are being told by tribunals and courts that they have no such rights in the face of statutes modifying the law’s treatment of homosexuals, and thus, gay marriages. In almost all of these cases, small-business owners are happy to serve everyone who walks in their door; they just don’t want to be forced to violate their religious convictions by being conscripted to play a part in a specific ceremony they view as morally wrong.

For example, they are happy to sell a cake to a gay customer, but they don’t want to be forced to create a wedding cake for a gay wedding. There is a substantial difference. These individuals don’t want to be forced to take part in dedicating a marriage unto God that they believe violates God’s commands against homosexual conduct.

The issue is not what others may believe but rather what the dissenters believe. If they are forced to create a cake or flowers specifically to celebrate a same-sex wedding ceremony, they are being forced to violate their consciences regarding what they believe to be morally wrong.

We do not have to agree with dissenters to support legal protections for their views. We might support legal protections for conscientious objectors to a military draft, even though we might not hold the same conscientious objection. Likewise, we should be able to support the right of those who, having moral qualms about same-sex marriage, desire to opt out of situations forcing them to approve of such marriages, tacitly or overtly. Their legal right to dissent must be protected. So far, it has not been.

One necessary protection for these dissenters are state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Acts similar to the one signed into federal law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Religious Freedom Restoration Acts simply protect sincere conscientious objectors of all religions from overintrusive government regulation burdening their religious practice, while winnowing out those using religion as a pretext to escape application of general laws.

Religious Freedom Restoration Acts are not a “blank check” for doing anything one wants in the name of religion. Despite these laws being on the books in many places for many years, there is no record of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts being used to avoid nondiscrimination laws. Such a problem just doesn’t exist.

Moreover, these laws do not entitle an individual with a religious claim to automatic relief; he must have his claim evaluated in court. A quick study of how Religious Freedom Restoration Acts have been used will reveal many religious claims that failed in court.

Unfortunately, on the other hand, many same-sex-marriage advocates believe they have a “blank check” to root out anyone with dissenting opinions — even those held in private. Yet the public record is clear: Business owners are shunned for nothing but their beliefs, and public officials are fired for their Christian views on marriage, even when the government — by its own admission — does not possess one allegation the official ever acted in a discriminatory manner.

Americans increasingly have little trust in their government and want its intruding tentacles out of their personal lives when it comes to telling them what to think about marriage.

Regardless of what happens at the Supreme Court, this widespread public support for individual liberty and the freedom to follow one’s beliefs must be reflected in law.

When no other option remains, we must protect the rights and views of those who can do nothing but dissent.