How Conservatives Hijacked ‘Religious Freedom’

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence speaks question during a news conference Tuesday, March 31, 2015, in Indianapolis. Pence said that he wants legislation on his desk by the end of the week to clarify that the state's new relig... Indiana Gov. Mike Pence speaks question during a news conference Tuesday, March 31, 2015, in Indianapolis. Pence said that he wants legislation on his desk by the end of the week to clarify that the state's new religious-freedom law does not allow discrimination against gays and lesbians. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings) MORE LESS
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There’s been an amazing backlash against the new law in Indiana, signed by Gov. Mike Pence, that appears to give business owners broad rights to discriminate against LGBT people by citing “religious freedom.” The backlash is so rampant that Pence has already started dodging and weaving and pretending that this bill has nothing to do with gay people, even though, when he signed it, he made sure to surround himself with anti-gay activists so you know that’s exactly what this is all about.

The backlash is kind of surprising, when you consider that it’s already legal to discriminate against LGBT people in Indiana without having to pull the Jesus card to do it. Pence’s maddening dishonesty might be fueling the rage: Lying plus bigotry is a toxic combination. But there’s another factor that’s helping push this past the tipping point of “another story about conservative bigotry” to national scandal. Liberals are getting fed up with this ridiculous conservative push to redefine “religious liberty” to mean its opposite, using it as a phrase to justify Christian conservatives forcing their religious beliefs on you and depriving you of basic religious freedom.

Up until recently, most of us seemed to understand that the best way to maximize religious freedom for everyone was to stay in your own lane: You can choose what to believe yourself, but if you start trying to force your beliefs on others, that is when a line has been crossed. And while conservatives grumbled about it, there was widespread acceptance of the idea that “force” meant more than just government force. An employer trying to force his employees to follow his religious rules, for instance, was violating religious freedom. A shop owner who refused to serve Jews would also be considered in violation (in most people’s eyes, at least).

But in the past few years, we’ve witnessed a dramatic and surprisingly successful effort to redefine “religious freedom” to mean “empowering Christian conservatives to force their dogma on the non-believers.” It really started when the HHS passed a regulation requiring insurance plans to cover contraception without a copay. Many conservative employers revolted, claiming their religious freedom should allow them the right to deny workers coverage of procedures or medications they don’t like.

Materially, it was no different than an employer claiming he cannot practice his religion freely without being able to go to his employee’s house and take away any books he disagrees with that she bought with her paycheck. It was arguing that an employer’s “religious freedom” requires him to force his beliefs on his employee and try to manipulate her compensation in order to get her to live by his religious rules, regardless of her own beliefs. But the Supreme Court bought it and now the door is open.

Recently while discussing the contraception mandate, Mike Huckabee dug into this argument, saying it’s “tyranny” to have the government “tell people what limitations of their belief could be.” But no one is limiting what your belief can be. You are free to hate contraception or gay people all you want. The limitation that chafes here is other people—more importantly, other people’s right to their own beliefs.

I have no doubt that Christian conservatives do feel limited by other people’s rights. There is that saying, “Your rights end where my nose begins.” Christian conservatives are arguing that they should be able to punch you in the nose if that desire to punch you in the nose is sincerely held. Because Americans have a longstanding respect for religion, this “but I really mean it!” argument has more traction than it really should.

Still, there’s a major—and frankly obvious—problem with redefining “religious freedom” to give people the right to impose their faith on others. How do you decide whose beliefs are the trump? Because, let’s be honest here, Christian conservatives don’t support a full-throttled legal right to impose your beliefs on others. If I had a store and banned Christians from shopping there, they’d scream bloody murder. If I were an employer and barred my employees from using their insurance on doctors, requiring them instead to visit a pagan faith healer of a belief I just made up, they would feel mighty imposed upon. When is forcing your faith “religious liberty” and when is it just being a dick?

Right now, the uncomfortable answer is, “When the belief in question is a mainstream and conservative one.” This question came up during Hobby Lobby’s case against the contraception mandate, and the court pretty much implied that imposing anti-contraception rules on employees was okay because Catholicism and Protestantism are mainstream, but a minority religion like Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t deny you access to blood transfusions. Similarly, this law in Indiana is clearly meant to give Christian business owners the right to discriminate against LGBT people, but not the other way around. There are plenty of gay photographers, hairdressers and bakers who firmly believe that Christian bigots are the worst, but they can’t cite “religious freedom” to deny service. And while it’s not hard to imagine that there are plenty of people who continue to believe God rejects interracial or interfaith marriages, it’s hard to imagine many conservatives defending the right to invoke Jesus in order to refuse to sell flowers to such a couple.

And this is why liberals are revolting. The religious freedom question was best handled by telling people to mind their own business, not just because it’s the fairest way to deal with this, but also the simplest. Christian conservatives want to pinch away everyone else’s religious freedom by creating a society full of small coercions—denial of service here, penalties at work there—that make it hard for people who disagree with them to live our own lives as we see fit. If we don’t stand up to this now, they will keep turning up the heat.

Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.

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