Religious Freedom is Fundamental, but Not an Excuse to Ignore Laws and Harm Others
Four religions were represented at my family’s Thanksgiving table last week. As I looked around the dining room, I was reminded that one of the things I’m most grateful for is that the Constitution protects not only the right to believe — or to not believe — but also the right to express ideas about faith.
But that freedom does not give any of us the right to use our beliefs to justify harming others.
Yet today, the House Judiciary Committee advanced a proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would allow people to put their religious beliefs ahead on the public good.If it passes, it will permit people to take advantage of the law to claim that their religion gives them the right to ignore criminal and civil laws – non-discrimination laws, child abuse laws, and domestic violence laws.
This means a police officer could refuse to defend a mosque or synagogue, a school guidance counselor could deny help to a gay student, a landlord could refuse to rent to a single mother, or a man could claim that he has a religious right to discipline his wife and kids as he sees fit—all based on their religious beliefs.
But these aren’t just hypothetical situations meant to scare. These things have happened in other states with similar laws. In Oklahoma, a police officer asserted a religious objection to his community policing duties at a mosque. In New Mexico, a local religious leader cited the state RFRA when he appealed his conviction for sexually assaulting two teenagers. The City of Dallas has been in embroiled in a seven-year legal battle with a religious group that claims that the Texas RFRA prevents the city from enforcing its health code and food safety standards on the group.
And recently, a judge held that the federal RFRA prevented the Department of Labor from investigating specific child labor law violations. Child labor!
At a great cost to local governments and taxpayers in Michigan, this measure would open a Pandora’s Box of lawsuits challenging any law, policy, government decision or regulation that an individual believes conflicts with their religious exercise.
I stand for protecting people from being persecuted for their religion, as does the ACLU of Michigan. The ACLU has fought for decades to defend individual religious freedom.
That’s not what this law does. Instead, this broadly and poorly written law allows individuals to use their religious beliefs as an excuse to discriminate and ignore laws the rest of us follow.
Just like at my family’s dinner table, in America we can believe whatever we want about God. We don’t have the right to use that belief to hurt anyone else.
By Maggie McGuire, Digital Media Strategist