Tuesday, September 8, 2015

What Do We Mean When We Say "Religious Freedom"?

When I was a kid growing up in a suburb of Boston, Catholics were the majority faith in the city, and Protestants dominated the rest of the state.  It was back in the days when there was still prayer in the public schools (it was always Christian prayer), and when Christian kids observed their holidays in the classroom, while everyone else's holidays were generally ignored.  If you know me personally, you know that while I am proud to be Jewish, I am not opposed to the practice of Christianity; and you know I respect other people's beliefs, even if I don't agree with them.  But growing up in a time when Christianity was imposed on everyone, even those of us who didn't want to hear about it, was often difficult.  My French teacher wanted me to learn the Rosary.  (I did, and I suppose it will come in handy if I am ever at death's door in MontrĂ©al and need someone to pray for me.)  One of my elementary school teacher began classes with a mandatory reading, often a long reading, from the New Testament.  Day after day, there were reminders that Christianity was the dominant ideology.  

So what should I have done?  Walk out? Refuse to listen? Complain to the principal?  I was one of only about ten Jewish kids in the school, as I recall.  I was also young, and it was an era when disobeying the teachers could lead to expulsion.  So I was advised not to make a scene and to be polite about it.  I followed that advice, but I never forgot how powerless I felt each time my teachers imposed their religious beliefs on me. 

Fast forward to today.  Kim Davis, the Rowan County (KY) clerk who had refused to give marriage licenses to gay people received a hero's welcome when she was released from prison-- a sentence she could have avoided by obeying the law and respecting the ruling of the Supreme Court.  Again, she has every right to her beliefs, and I can respect them, whether I agree or not.  In fact, in her personal life, she has the right to go to any church, say any prayer, and believe that all gay people will burn in hell.  But in her job description, she took an oath to uphold the law, and not just the laws she likes.  Yet there she was, just like the people of my childhood, imposing her beliefs on everyone else-- refusing to issue the licenses because she personally opposes gay marriage.  She claimed she didn't have to obey the law because it violated her religious freedom.  That, by the way, is the same rationale my teachers used when they gave New Testament bible readings in my public school class-- they had freedom of worship.  Even years after the Supreme Court ruled (in 1962) that "captive audience prayer" is no longer legal, many public schools, most of which are in the "bible belt," have ignored that ruling and continue to have sectarian prayer because of what they call their "religious freedom."   

And today, I saw Republican Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, the man who had recently told ABC's George Stephanopolous that Kim Davis had every right to disobey any law she felt was unjust, the man who had said the Supreme Court is NOT the final authority.  He turned her release from jail into a political and religious pep rally, encouraging the crowd to basically commit acts of sedition.  He agreed with what Ms. Davis had done, and asserted yet again that "God's law" takes precedence over the constitution-- a puzzling claim for someone who wants to be president and who must swear to defend the constitution.  Many of Ms. Davis's supporters were far too gleeful about her willingness to disobey the law.  I understand that they believe gay marriage is wrong, and I understand they are upset that America is, as they see it, far too secular. But we don't live in a theocracy.  And we don't get to pick and choose which laws we obey. 

While I respect Kim Davis for her commitment to her faith, she does NOT have the right to impose her beliefs on others, and her followers should not be cheering about what she did.  As an elected official, her duty is clear:  she was not elected as a pastor, nor as a defender of evangelical Christianity in a secular world. She was elected to uphold the law.  Shame on Mr. Huckabee for pandering to the ultra-conservatives in Kentucky, and shame on the members of the crowd who think that they don't have to respect the beliefs of those in the minority.  As someone who knows first-hand what it feels like to be subjected to intolerance, I know nothing good can come of refusing to treat others as equals.  

I strongly doubt that Jesus would think Mike Huckabee did a good thing by encouraging the crowd to break the law; and I strongly doubt that making the country even more polarized is what a presidential candidate ought to do.  The answer to this contentious issue does not lie in name-calling or in acts of sedition.  "Religious freedom" should not be code words for "my way is right and I am going to impose it on you."  I am sorry Kim Davis doesn't like the Supreme Court's ruling.  But her response seems more about being stubborn and less about being religious.  That may sound harsh, and I don't mean to seem judgmental.  But I guess I get a little sensitive when I see anyone stubbornly imposing their beliefs on others and claiming that's an example of "religious freedom."  Trust me:  it's not.


  1. You have forgotten an important part of the case. She is not issuing licenses to straight man/woman couples either which is a violation of the Word of God. She claims it's to not discriminate but it is a sin. I tried to confront her with that since she cannot have any religious objections but she just used the not discriminate answer. She becam Apostolic only four years ago to get forgiveness for her admitted evil life. She is afraid by letting gays marry she will lose her forgiveness but what about the sin of stopping straight marriage? You and most media have ignored that. I was the only photographer there yesterday when one of the two straight couples got their license but there is still one more straight couple from the lawsuit. We and she would all have been better off if she had gone to a psychologist instead of a fundamentalist church.

    1. No, I am not ignoring that her "solution" was to stop issuing licenses to anyone, which, I do agree, denies straight couples marriage rights too-- but you and I both know it's much easier for straight couples in Kentucky to find a place to get married than it is for gay couples, despite the Supreme Court ruling. And my point was that while I respect her views, this is not about her interpretation of the Word of God, nor about her deeply held religious beliefs. It's about the rule of law and her duties-- which she took an oath to perform.

  2. Kim Davis is a victim.

    Not a victim of religious persecution - she was jailed for defying a legal court order, not because of her beliefs - but a victim of the religious right itself.

    The right and far-right have co-opted Christianity as a political and social tool. Kim Davis simply fell into the trap, that so many of the faithful have fallen into, that the central message of Christianity is now a political message.

    In a sense, it originally was a political message. Jesus - who, as an atheist, I actually believe did exist - spoke of feeding the poor, healing the sick, decrying wealth and privilege, loving your fellow human being and treading gently upon the earth.

    The modern day right wing has warped that message. Now, according to the Christian right, it means deny your neighbour food and drink because you think they're lazy, deny the sick healthcare because you think it's "socialist", deny equal rights because you think it's against "God's Law."

    (Quick aside: Just a few short paragraphs away from the supposed prohibition against homosexual relationships is a very clear warning to not eat shellfish because it's an abomination... or something. Let me know the next time you see the Christian right protesting outside the local Red Lobster.)

    So the fault isn't the thrice-divorced Kim Davis. She was just sold a bill of false goods from the O'Reilly/Limbaugh/Coulter/Duggar/Huckabee/Cruz crowd and. like so many, was naive enough to believe it.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. The above comment ("Kim Davis is a victim") was my comment. For reasons I'm not sure of, it didn't link properly with my Google account.

  5. I couldn't have said it better myself, Miss Donna!! :-)

  6. Hi, Tabs.

    From my (secular humanist) perspective, it leaves me feeling sad. It doesn't take much research to understand that the United States, as stated by the founders of same, was never intended to be a religious nation--Christian or otherwise. I'm saddened by the number of people who insist that we are a theocracy (which is exactly what those who insist that we are a Christian nation subject to the laws of the Christian god). I'm saddened that it is so difficult to obtain public office without at least a tacit acknowledgement of having (Christian) faith.

    That's just my view. This is Donna's blog so I won't take any more space to cover the many additional feelings that being cast as a "bad" person or "un-American" make many of us non-Christians feel.

    I think it can be wrapped up in sadness.