Tomorrow is Religious Freedom Day, a day that celebrates the passage of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Passed in 1786, this piece of legislation.
As a queer Baptist, my faith is often trivialized by those who do not believe it is possible to be both queer and Christian.
I also know that my Baptist tradition is based in religious freedom, extending back to the legendary founding Baptist, who pioneered the concept of religious liberty in the United States. In no small feat, he helped establish the colony of Rhode Island as a safe haven for religious minorities.
Because I am Baptist, and because I am queer, I am deeply grateful for religious freedom, which ensures that my unconventional, queer faith deserves protection and respect. Just as much as I want it for myself, I want that respect for others as well.
Conversely, as a citizen of the United States, I also expect protection from acts of exclusion and discrimination. Just as much as I want it for myself, I want that protection for others as well.
Religious freedom means that, because my freedom of belief is respected, I am also protected from discrimination because of my religion.
Religious freedom does not mean that respect for my religious beliefs supersedes another individual’s right to be protected from discrimination. It’s a subtle difference in theory, but in practice, this distinction makes all the difference in the world.
Right now, across the country, laws are being drafted in advance of the 2016 legislative session. These laws extend religious freedom so far that they prioritize respect for one person beliefs over another individual’s right to be protected from discrimination.
So how is this happening?
My firm belief is that this wave of legislation is rolling back protections by co-opting the very heart of the matter: discrimination.
Take, for example, the small business owners that are often thrust into the spotlight in debates over “religious refusal laws.” The most classic story goes like this: a small, Christian business owner does not want to serve a client because of that client’s sexual orientation. It seems simple enough to just ask the clients to take their business somewhere else. Proponents of these religious refusal laws describe them as protecting the small business owner from having to serve people whose identities or experiences violate their “deeply held religious beliefs.”
To many people, including some LGBTQ people (trust me: I always read the comments), this example seems sounds innocuous enough. The takeaway is that we’re protecting the small business owner’s religious freedom.
But what if we swap out the small business owner for Kim Davis? Some of these laws, after all, are designed to protect people exactly like Kim Davis from having to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.
What if we replace the business owner with an EMT, and the client is a transgender patient whose survival depends on their life-saving medical care?
As it turns out, this isn’t a hypothetical scenario. In 1995, Tyra Hunter died after EMT’s arrived on the scene of an accident and refused to treat her because she was transgender.
And that is why these laws are not innocuous. They lay a foundation for an individual’s personal beliefs about someone’s identities or experiences to trump their clients’, patients’, or even employees’ rights to be protected from discrimination.
On some level, I understand why these laws are being proposed. Our culture is moving quickly to protect the rights of LGBTQ people, and these changes are leaving non-affirming Christians feeling alone and marginalized.
Which brings me back to my first point: as a queer Baptist, I understand how it feels when your beliefs are not taken seriously.
But the reality is, religious freedom has two sides: freedom of religion, and freedom from religion. Roger Williams understood that when he founded a colony where religious minorities could escape persecution at the hands of the ???? There’s a reason this idea became popular enough to make it into the Bill of Rights.
It’s because our history of religious freedom is not just about respecting religious beliefs, it’s about protecting those who are persecuted in the name of religion.
“No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”