Peyote use has been defended with religious liberty arguments. So has Bible reading in public schools.
We have now heard Donald Trump’s words, literally ad nauseam, as he boasted about forcing himself on women, kissing them and grabbing them. Now, while the Republican Party implodes, many conservative evangelicals are brushing off the comments.
A summer of racial unrest throughout the country has led to calls in the presidential campaign to “restore law and order.” It’s the same line used by Richard Nixon in 1968 to appeal to white nationalist fears of black criminality after the “long hot summer of 1967.” Racialized wars on drugs emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—directed against Chinese people for opium use, African Americans in the South for charges of cocaine use, and Mexicans and Mexican Americans surrounding allegations of marijuana use. Then there is peyote, a sacred medicine and religious adjunct in Native American worship.
There are at least two important differences between a touring musician who skips a state to make a point and a service provider who doesn’t want to provide services on account of personal opposition to the larger thing being served.
Shortly after the terrorist attacks in Paris in mid-November, Texas senator and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz set off a flurry of controversy when he announced that he believed the federal government should bar Muslim refugees fleeing violence and civil war in Syria from resettling in the United States. He stated on Fox News, “on the other hand, Christians who are being targeted for genocide, for persecution, Christians who are being beheaded or crucified, we should be providing safe haven to them.” After President Obama described these sentiments as “shameful” and “un-American,” Cruz doubled down.
Insisting that a government office answer to the law rather than to a given official’s religious beliefs isn’t de-prioritizing religious freedom in favor of something else. It is religious freedom.
Free exercise is a basic right and a great asset to the American religious landscape. Yet some of its advocates seem eager to give it a bad name.
Next to the First Amendment, then-President Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 has perhaps come to represent the most popular understanding of religious freedom in the collective mind of America. Because of Jefferson’s “wall of separation” metaphor, some would like the letter to pass back into the shadow of obscurity under which it rested prior to the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision. Others rejoice that the letter provides the lens through which religion itself is defined and applied in contemporary America. Jefferson’s famous metaphor is important, but it is a star drawing into its orbit the comet of our short attention span.
While I happen to think that refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding that isn’t even happening at your own church is a distortion of what it means to follow Jesus, this is more lament than argument. It makes me sad; and our religious freedom tradition, quite rightly, isn’t particularly concerned about my sadness. What’s far more frustrating than pro-RFRA sentiment itself is the lack of empathy displayed by some who hold it.
When what's at stake is a commercial transaction, it makes sense for a religious freedom claim to be trumped by the commitment to treat people equally.