“All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
— President George Washington, Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, RI, August 18, 1790
It was not so long ago when one of the most powerful justifications wielded in support of the American practice of segregation was religious belief. Segregation and discrimination against Black citizens were enforced by state-sanctioned Jim Crow laws that legally separated Blacks from Whites and made it illegal for individuals from either group to associate with the other. Schools were segregated. Restaurants were segregated. Blacks and Whites could not legally marry. And even water fountains were designated by race. Defenders of these race-based policies employed a variety of arguments to support the institution of discrimination by the books, including arguing that the fact that God “separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix,” as was written by a lower court justice in a landmark civil rights case that would later end all state bans on interracial marriage.
Today, religious freedom bills are cropping up around the nation that would turn back the clock on American progress versus legal discrimination. Cloaked under the mantle of religious liberty, there are those who want to invoke their constitutional right to freedom of association and religion to deny other citizens—those whose lives and lifestyles they say are at odds with their religious beliefs—employment, professional or private services and the right to marry, among other things. The free exercise of religion sits at the heart of our nation’s founding. But we live in a democracy, not a theocracy. We cannot allow religious liberty to be transformed into a tool of oppression against any class of individuals or citizens.
Following huge public outcry and the threat of millions in lost business in the state, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal has announced that he will veto a religious freedom bill that was meant to protect faith-based groups and individuals from legal repercussions if they refused to provide services or employment to people on the grounds of avoiding the violation of their religious beliefs. In Kansas City, lawmakers are looking at legislation that would amend the Missouri constitution to prohibit the government from punishing individuals and businesses that refuse, on religious grounds, to provide goods or services for same-sex marriage ceremonies or celebrations of same-sex couples. As Missouri lawmakers consider the law for a future vote, the NCAA is considering bids from other cities for their future sports events—potentially costing the city millions in revenue from lost sporting events. But these states are not outliers. Over twenty states have passed some form of a religious freedom bill or are poised to put policies in place that violate our country’s core principals of inclusion and the freedom to live and work free from discrimination.
In a democracy as diverse in races, religions, ideologies and orientations, collisions between the rights of religion and the responsibilities of civil authority are inevitable. Our country was founded on the idea that people should not be persecuted because of their religious beliefs, but like any other right, there are reasonable limits to its free exercise. As our nation’s first president articulated, those who live under the protection of the United States of America must also “demean themselves as good citizens.” You cannot invoke a special right to deny another their rights as citizens. Religious liberty, as valuable and necessary as it is, cannot be used to break the law, should not be twisted to oppress a class of people, and cannot be tolerated as a means to freely discriminate in a nation whose goal, since its founding, has been to create a more perfect union and establish justice.