April 6, 2016 | Commentary on Religious Liberty, Mississippi, Georgia

Standing up for Religious Liberty

To see religious liberty under attack in the United States is disheartening — and more than a little ironic.

This nation was founded, after all, by people seeking a land where they were free to live their faith without fear of persecution. Not simply to believe what they believe, mind you, but to live their faith. The freedom to keep your beliefs to yourself is no freedom at all.

It seems logical in the abstract. Yet more and more, it’s not working out that way in the real world.

Ask the people of Georgia. Gov. Nathan Deal recently vetoed a bill designed to protect the religious freedoms of state residents who don’t want government forcing them to violate their faith.

How would government do that? By siding with those who claim, for example, that the Christian owner of a bakery must cater a same-sex wedding. That kind of thing has been happening with increasing frequency nationwide, and it deeply troubles many men and women whose faith teaches them that marriage is only between one man and one woman.

Another example of how religious freedoms could be violated: Say that a church was hiring a teacher and rejected the application of someone who disagreed with one or more of its most fundamental beliefs. What if the government sided with the person who was rejected, insisting that the church had no right to do so?

That’s the kind of thing that Georgia’s Free Exercise Protection Act was designed to prevent. Yet, even though it had been greatly watered down in an effort to assure passage, Mr. Deal vetoed it. Why? According to him, it didn’t reflect Georgia’s image as a state full of “warm, friendly and loving people.”

Uh-huh. And the fact that large corporations such as the National Football League, Coca-Cola and the Walt Disney Co. threatened to pull business out of Georgia if Mr. Deal signed the bill had nothing to do with it? Right.

Its opponents insist that the Free Exercise Protection Act and other similar bills would sanction discrimination against the LGBT community. On the basis of what? The only people being discriminated against are those who ask simply that they not be made to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

Legislators in Georgia and others states (Mississippi is working on a religious liberty bill of its own now) want to protect their civil liberties. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s redefinition of marriage last year, that certainly seems reasonable. As religious freedom expert Ryan Anderson notes:

“It’s what Americans did after Roe v. Wade, too. Congress and the states have passed a variety of laws that protect pro-life conscience. [A]fter Roe legislatures made clear that government cannot require a pro-life doctor or nurse to perform an abortion — that they, too, had rights that required specific protections from hostile judges and bureaucrats.”

Such protections are required today in the marriage arena. Mississippi’s law would protect freedom of conscience for people who believe that marriage is the union of husband and wife. “It doesn’t say anyone has to believe these things,” says Mr. Anderson, author of “Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom.” “It just says that if someone does believe them, the government can’t discriminate against them. So the bill takes nothing away from anyone, it simply protects pluralism.”

That such a bedrock, common-sense provision, one rooted in the DNA of our country’s founding principles, is controversial says a lot about how embattled our most basic freedoms have become.

When President Clinton signed the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, he decried “a climate in this country in which some people are embarrassed to say that they advocate a course of action simply because they believe it is dictated by their faith — by what they discern to be, with their best efforts, the will of God.”

The need to combat that climate is even greater today, when our religious liberties are under sharper and more vicious attacks. Will we stand up for what is right?

 - Ed Feulner is the founder of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

 - This piece originally appeared in the Washington Times.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

Originally appeared in the Washington Times