How Far Does Religious Liberty Go?

–Daniel S. Ferguson

Here’s a question that seems to define religious civil rights today: Do ministers have the right to decline to perform weddings with which they morally, religiously, or personally disagree?

This is the question addressed by Ohio’s HB 286, which seeks to guarantee that right.

I’m left to ask: Why does there have to be a law to protect that right? Why is that right not obvious?

To be clear, this is a completely separate issue from the legal rights of customers at businesses. I fully believe that LGBT citizens should be a protected class, meaning that businesses would not have the right to deny them service, just like they don’t have the right to deny service on the basis of race. Yes, this means Christian bakers should be required to make wedding cakes for gay weddings, just as they would for interracial weddings or weddings outside their religion. That’s my view.

But ministers are a different thing altogether. Nearly all churches have non-profit status, and nearly all pastors perform weddings either as part of that non-profit organization or else privately on their own, again usually as a non-profit entity, the sole purpose of which is religious. That’s completely protected under the First Amendment and common sense.

So why does there have to be a law? It’s pressure from both sides. Nearly everyone is itching for a Supreme Court ruling on the issue, to settle the law once and for all. Special interest groups on both sides have been nudging here and there with various attempts at laws in order to get the case to the high court. That’s somewhat how politics works. That’s why the bill was introduced (I imagine), and that’s why Equality Ohio is “targeting Catholic churches” in its opposition.

But I would much prefer that Equality Ohio and the Religious Right focus on the baker and not on the pastor, for several reasons.

First to those on my side of this issue:

It is NOT a liberal value to oppose religious freedom. It’s a liberal value to protect it. (Click to Tweet)

We used to bend over backwards, annoyingly so, for First Amendment rights. When did that stop mattering to us?

Well it still matters to me. Not just as a Christian, but as a liberal. I couldn’t care less if you were attacking the rights of Muslim ministers; I’d still be seeking to protect them. Not because I oppose you on this issue, but because that’s what liberalism is. We can’t use the word ‘liberal’ if we’re not about freedom.

So, please, stop picking on pastors. That only drives the wedge between us deeper. Unless that’s your goal, in which case, speaking as a liberal, go to bed, would you please?

Now, to those on the other side of this issue: Stop fearing the worst constantly. By and large, the LGBT community isn’t out to get you. They’re out to ensure their own rights, with which I’m sure you can empathize. That’s what you’re doing, too.

And there’s our middle ground: both sides are seeking to ensure their free rights of expression. On the one side, pastors don’t want their religious freedom to perform weddings according to their own beliefs. That makes sense. If a Catholic priest was being legally required to perform a Protestant wedding, the entire liberal world would explode with fury, and rightly so. That’s a religious right that we consider sacred within the clergy. So let’s protect that.

On the other side, the LGBT community wants their rights of marital expression secured as well. They don’t like that there’s a fuzzy legal line between churches, which could refuse them a wedding, and other religious organizations, some of which are for-profit, that might also be able to refuse them a wedding. They feel like that’s wrong, and so do I.

What does all of this have to do with the topic of this blog, why people leave church and why they come back? Because if both sides keep drawing thicker, blacker lines between each other, nobody will ever be able to cross safely. And I desperately want for that line to be both thin and blurry.

So, for the literal love of God, let’s please stop hitting each other and find a compromise. I recommend establishing LGBT as a legally protected status under the Civil Rights Act, compelling businesses (but not non-profit organizations or churches) to serve them as any other customer.

But I really need liberals to hear me on this point: We’re about freedom. Just because conservatives hijacked the word in the last decade does not mean we’re against freedom because we oppose them. We just come at freedom a little differently. But we’re about freedom. So please stop opposing it.

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