“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
— Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia”
“Equal rights for others does not mean less rights for you. It’s not pie.”
— T-shirts, sweatshirts, coffee mugs, mouse pads, The whole damn internet
If granting by law a guarantee of basic rights to one identifiable classification of human beings is seen as endangering the basic rights of another identifiable classification of human beings, then what’s being threatened isn’t a basic human right. It’s a privilege. Often a privilege that has existed for so long without question that is has come to be perceived as a right not to be threatened by government or anyone else.
An example of this that is trending this week is the debate over a bill now before the U.S. House of Representatives, a bill known to its many friends as the Equality Act. The measure is widely supported by Democrats — including Utah’s Rep. Ben McAdams — who control the House, so is likely to pass there.
It faces rougher going at best in the body previously known as the Republican-dominated Senate, now properly referred to as the Vichy Congress, in thrall as it is to the fascist in chief who lurks at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
The bill would add LGBT-denominated humans to a list of protected classes already found in federal law, stuff like race and ethnicity, shielding them from discrimination in basic aspects of life such as employment, housing, government services, education and the like.
So, of course, many Republicans, including the House members from Utah, are opposed. As is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They worry that a law that says you can’t discriminate against gay folks in housing and employment and education will amount to a violation of religious freedom.
If that is really what religious freedom means, then it is no wonder some people think it is under attack. Because if that is really what religious freedom means, it should be, if not under attack, then at least viewed with great skepticism.
That argument that one value threatens the other, that we have a delicate “balance” we need to constantly adjust and maintain, only makes sense if your definition of religious freedom means a right to not only look down on people who aren’t like you — a pleasure no government can ever touch — but also a right to fence them off from certain services and institutions.
That was true when we were first working out equal rights for women, black people and others. No matter what groups of humans were trying to stand up and take their rightful place in the sun, there have always been people who were already there, arguing, quite sincerely, that they couldn’t accommodate that growth because it would mean denying their own sincerely held religious beliefs.
Of course, religious faith has also motivated a great many people, members of repressed groups and of the groups holding power, to move toward inclusion and equality. It is still happening.
Which is proof that loyalty to any religious tradition does not force adherents to think and behave in any particular way, to choose between their faith and their government. That is only a duck blind they use to hide behind when social progress, as it often does, makes people feel uncomfortable.
When acting on religious beliefs harms no one, it is none of the government’s business. When those beliefs are used as a weapon to deprive others of basic rights, they must yield the public square. Just like everybody else.