“Religious freedom” bill for magistrates: A bad idea that would lead to many others

marriage amendmentAccording to news reports, Representative Paul Stam will hold some kind of legislative “briefing” tomorrow on a “religious freedom” bill that would permit magistrates and other state employees to deny same-sex couples marriage licenses if it violates their own religious beliefs.

This is an enormously troubling idea.

From a legal standpoint, permitting state employees to refuse to perform the duties of their job based on their faith opens the door to all sorts of potentially absurd new practices. There are many religions out there with many different beliefs, including some that are contrary to our state laws or policies. Are we now saying that a person’s individual, albeit sincerely-held, beliefs take precedence over the duties of their job? Can an EMT refuse to provide medical treatment to a member of the LGBT community because their lifestyle violates her religious beliefs? If a police officer, whose religion beliefs include the right of a man to discipline his wife, witnesses domestic abuse while on the job, can he choose not to arrest the husband? We’re heading down a very slippery slope with this bill.

But let’s think about this bill itself, which Stam claims is intended to defend religious freedom. The irony of this, of course, is that by allowing state employees to refuse marriage licenses if it would violate their own religious beliefs, the bill would actually result in allowing discrimination towards anyone whose beliefs weren’t in line with the state employee. The bill specifically targets the LGBT community and denies them a service that they are entitled to as citizens of the state. Whatever the explanation may be, denying services to one class of people while providing it to the rest is precisely the definition of discriminatory treatment.

Using “religious freedom” as a guise for discriminating against a particular group obviously isn’t a novel idea. In just the past year, several states have tried to pass bills that would allow people or entities to chose not to serve a client if it violates their “religious beliefs.” The reality is that, for example, a baker wants the ability to refuse to cater a gay wedding and this bill would allow him to do that without violating consumer protection laws. Fortunately, most of these bills have failed (and there is hope for a Respect for Marriage Act that may put an end to this nonsense).

But this idea goes even further back. In 1901, Georgia’s then governor used religion to defend segregated schools, explaining that God didn’t want African-Americans to be educated equally. Today, the idea of state-sponsored racism appalls all of us but is it really that far of a stretch from considering a bill that condones discrimination towards the LGBT community? I imagine that one day, not that long in the future, we will look back on today’s briefing with the same feelings of dismay and utter disbelief.

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