Here in Georgia, debate has raged over the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), a bill introduced by Republican State Senator Greg Kirk. The bill intends to protect government employees that oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds from being forced to issue marriage license to same-sex couples, à la Kim Davis. FADA resembles the First Amendment Defense Act introduced at the federal level aimed at protecting those that have religious objections to same-sex marriage from action by the federal government. Proponents defend the bill as a “more palatable” version of other religious freedom bills proposed at the state level across the country, while opponents fear that the bill provides a license to discriminate against LGBT individuals.
FADA is indicative of a change in rhetoric by the political right from promoting traditional marriage between one man and one woman to preserving religious liberty in wake of the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. For many conservatives, standing in opposition to same-sex marriage is now a political nonstarter as a majority of Americans now support it, so their focus has shifted to battling government coercion of religious institutions into performing weddings for same-sex couples. As the populace shifts further to the left, especially on social issues, the Christian Right sees FADA, both in its federal form and its state form, as a last ditch effort to protect affronts on religious liberty.
As an independent with a libertarian streak that loosely aligns with the near-extinct breed of liberal Republicans, I understand and respect the push to prevent the government from trampling over individuals’ First Amendment rights. After all, the right to free exercise of religion is one of the most fundamentally American ideals. But the majority of the dialogue centers exclusively on Christianity. Take Ted Cruz’s campaign website, which has a whole page dedicated to listing his achievements in the fight for religious liberty. While most of the page employs deliberately vague, non-sectarian references to God to appear more inclusive toward other religions, a cursory investigation into Cruz’s “achievements” reveals a very Christocentric narrative, as evidenced by the phrases I’ve bolded in the excerpt below:
- Galvanized national support for Houston pastors who had been subpoenaed by the City of Houston and forced to turn in their sermons.
- Stood with Kim Davis in defense of her right to live in accordance with her faith.
- Defended Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties against Obamacare’s contraception mandate.
- Sponsored legislation to grant Meriam Ibrahim and her children permanent legal status in the US so they could swiftly return home after being imprisoned for her Christian faith….
- Attended prayer rallies for persecuted Christians and has Introduced a resolution that states that President Obama should not meet with Iran until they release American hostages, including Pastor Saeed Abedini.
Cruz’s crowning achievements center around defending Christians from government intrusion on their faith, including pastors whose sermons were subpoenaed, Kim Davis, the county clerk from Rowan County, KY who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because it went against her Christian faith, and Christian corporations that object to the provision of contraceptives to its employees. While it makes sense for a candidate like Cruz, whose supporters include a large number of evangelicals, to highlight his contributions to the fight to protect Christians from “government persecution” as a means of pandering to his base, there seems to be a complete lack of discussion on religious liberty as it pertains to other religious groups, as if Christians are the only group suffering from these persecutions. For example, Cruz doesn’t seem to put much effort into fighting for the religious liberty of Muslims to object to serving alcohol on the grounds that it violates Islamic law, of other religions to hold prayer in public schools, of Orthodox Jews objecting to the service of non-Kosher products, or of Hindus objecting to service of red meat.
Now, I don’t mean to exclusively pick on Cruz, as many other conservatives are guilty of the same double standard. I also don’t mean to glorify individuals that refuse to comply with their occupational duties like Kim Davis and Charee Stanley, because ultimately they get paid to do their jobs, and such refusal is grounds for rightful termination under most companies’ (and governments’) policies. But more broadly, it appears that a substantial amount of conservatives only care about the right of Christians to freely practice their religion and care significantly less about other religious groups’ similar right.
Even further, I think that some conservatives use religious liberty as a guise for discrimination against LGBT individuals and their way of life. For a segment of the white heterosexual Christian population in the United States, rapid social change creates the illusion that societal norms are crumbling and that the majority is the victim of “genocide.” In response, some turn to institutional means of perpetuating the status quo and suppressing minorities, such as FADA. Bills like FADA on the surface might seem like common sense measures to protect religious liberty for all, but in actuality they have the underlying intention of denying rights to same-sex couples.
Let me qualify all of this by saying that bona fide pushes for religious liberty are not inherently homophobic. In fact, a large contingent of the population, myself included, happens to support equal rights for same-sex couples and would also love to see religious liberties expanded and preserved for all religions. Even a number of the architects of FADA genuinely intended the bill to be a middle ground for all parties and not some discriminatory piece of legislation. However, with the way national dialogue on the issue has been framed and how staunch social conservatives have historically responded to landmark events that grant traditionally oppressed groups equal rights (e.g. the Thirteenth Amendment, the Nineteenth Amendment, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964), I can’t help but question the intentions of many of FADA’s supporters.
In closing, the dialogue regarding religious liberty must be expanded to encompass all religions, not just the majority Christian population, otherwise “religious liberty” becomes a one-sided discussion about how to ensure the hegemony of the Christian religion in American society. Despite what Michele Bachmann might say, the United States is not a “Christian nation;” rather it is a melting pot of different creeds wherein everyone has the freedom to practice what they believe without the government imposing a particular faith on the people. Just as importantly, the focus of the dialogue should shift from same-sex marriage to the more general preservation of the free exercise of religion. Limiting discourse exclusively to same-sex marriage both ignores the broader issue of religious liberty and enables true bigots and homophobes to cloak their discriminatory beliefs in more benign language.