Sunday, April 5, 2015

When Rights and Freedoms Conflict

Because of all the attention my state of Indiana has received over its recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act, I've asked myself what  I believe about freedom - religious or otherwise. How do we decide who prevails when beliefs collide? What tests do we devise to determine whether beliefs are "sincere"? Are some beliefs inherently more righteous than others?

Start with the very foundation of our liberty: "all men are created equal". That should be the bedrock of America's principles. All other laws and rules and regulations flow from that single statement.

But what some of us believe are our rights are in conflict with what others believe are their rights. So the law must intervene to insist that there are times when, sorry, but your pursuit of happiness cannot stand if it impacts others in a negative way.

For instance, some religious denominations don't believe in blood transfusions, or indeed, any medical treatment at all. We had a case in Indiana years ago in which a 4-year-old girl died of a huge tumor growing out of her eye. Natali Mudd had experienced a great deal of suffering before her death. Her parents belonged to the Faith Assembly Church, a Pentecostal offshoot, that relied only on faith healing. At that time, Indiana had strict religious shield laws that protected them from prosecution.

Our laws today say that competent adults may make the decision to refuse medical care for themselves but they may not endanger a child's life because of their beliefs. Are these laws a violation of religious freedom? Should we go back to the previous way? A majority of us say no.

In 2000, Congress passed a law to mandate that prisons must comply with dietary needs of inmates, such as Jews who request kosher food or Muslims for whom it is a sin to eat pork. The cost of  complying with their dietary requirements is only in money, a small price to allow others to observe the tenets of their faith.

The use of peyote by Native Americans for religious purposes has been protected in the U.S. since 1965 but  the Supreme Court, in the case of Employment Division v. Smith, (1990), muddied the waters by holding that the First Amendment does not protect Indian practitioners who use peyote in Native American spiritual ceremonies, and also raised uncertainty whether this religious practice would be protected under the compelling State interest standard.

Ritual animal sacrifice is a part of the religious observance of some Afro-Caribbean religions, such as Santeria. The Supreme Court ruled that such sacrifice was legal in the name of religious freedom. Even some of us who support decorating wedding cakes for gay people are a little squeamish about sacrificing goats for the sake of faith but I guess it is no worse than our sacrificing animals for food. What if it was babies rather than chickens or goats though? No matter how genuine such beliefs might be, I assume we and our lawmakers and the Supreme Court would draw a line.

According to federal law, we cannot discriminate against other Americans based on the EEOC designations of race, color, religion, sex, national origin or age. We cannot refuse to hire them, to allow them to marry, to rent them a motel room, to serve them in our restaurant, to sell them a house, etc.

But the more recent questions have centered around: where do LGBT people fit into this? Based on religion, many Americans believe that homosexuality is disapproved of by God and undeserving of the same rights as the others on the EEOC list. (In fact, there are Americans who still believe this about African Americans but federal law overrules their religious beliefs) Meanwhile, it seems a majority of our citizens have concluded that gay people deserve the same rights as everyone else.

So, religious freedom versus civil rights. As much as Christians want to insist that we were founded as a Christian nation, they are wrong. America was founded on religious freedom, that is the right to practice whatever religion you please or no religion at all. You are free to live your faith or non-faith in whatever way it dictates so long as your faith doesn't infringe on the rights of others.

We entered an entirely new area of conflict when the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are the same as people and not-for-profit organizations, such as churches and hospital and schools associated with religion. Now, any owner of a corporation, like the owners of Hobby Lobby, can discriminate based on their faith, thus, employers do not have to provide contraception to their female employees if doing so goes against their church doctrine.

Evidently a majority of the court decided that the religious beliefs of corporations trumps the right of citizens to receive legal health care.

Abortion is protected in America per the Roe v Wade ruling, however, many red states have used legal maneuvering to shut down the clinics in their states or made the restrictions so onerous as to prevent some women, poor women especially, from accessing them. All these laws are, of course, justified in the name of religion.

Religious belief is often in the eye of the beholder. Thus, a Christian who will go to the mat against the term "Seasons Greetings" may also fight to stop a mosque from being built in their neighborhood. A Christian denies the separation of church and state which, ironically, is the very concept that also protects them from the dreaded Sharia law. Sauce for your goose is not necessarily sauce for my gander.

And what about people like me? People who claim fealty to no religion? Those who are bound to a particular faith are all convinced they have found the One True Way and every other religion is simply wrong (at least) and evil (at most). People like me find most of their most fervent beliefs incomprehensible. A god who cares whether his followers eat pork? A god who sends plagues to afflict his people. A god who demands the sacrifice of a rooster? A god who expresses love by allowing his son to be crucified? A god who orders you not to eat meat and milk together? And on and on and on. Oh, God, you certainly do occupy yourself with nonsensical minutia.

More power to anyone who finds a comforting faith to live by. I don't care if people believe these things and practice these customs as long as they leave me alone and don't try to force me to abide by them. My one spiritual law is contained in the Golden Rule. End of my bible.

America contains every possible religion. The vast majority are Christians, of course, but even they are broken into many denominations with differing beliefs. And among them, they pick and choose the sections of their Holy Books they want to emphasize or ignore. Usually, it is the other guy's sin that is the worst. (Homosexuality? An abomination. Adultery? Ah, well, you know....)

So, it all boils down to whose religious freedom and what religious freedom should be "restored". Oddly enough, we usually believe it is our own that most needs to be restored....which does not foretell peace in our time regarding religion.