In my last piece for Catholic Stand, I discussed the effort in Kentucky to adopt a state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the surprisingly vocal opposition that effort inspired. Though Governor Steve Beshear did veto the bill, the General Assembly ultimately overrode the veto. I believe there are several useful lessons to be learned from our experience that might benefit those defending religious liberty at the national level and in other states.
Be prepared for scare tactics related to civil rights. The primary argument used by the opposition, and the one that generated the most sympathy, was that protection of religious liberty will override civil rights laws. This has never been the case, and those who have honestly explored the issue will admit that. Anti-discrimination laws covering housing, employment, and other such basic necessities have always prevailed over religious liberty interests. But, the opposition needs to make a sympathetic case, and scaring people about the imminent end of civil rights protection seems to be the best they can do.
Know the opposition and their goals. As I discussed in my previous article, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union used to support straightforward statutory protections for religious liberty. In recent years, however, their position has changed. Homosexual activist groups have convinced many that their cause is the contemporary equivalent of the civil rights movement and to oppose them is to be like segregationists in the 1960’s.
It is certainly true that unjust discrimination against persons based on same-sex attraction is to be avoided, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches. However, our society has lost the ability to differentiate between persons and activities. It is one thing to prohibit a landlord from discriminating against classes of persons when leasing apartments in a 40-unit building. It is quite another to compel a wedding photographer to participate in a same-sex “marriage” ceremony. On several occasions, opponents of the religious freedom bill explicitly told me they feel the government should be able to compel acceptance of and participation in such ceremonies, and that was motivating their opposition. Of course, publicly they focused on the entirely false claims discussed above, that all forms of unjust discrimination would be legally justifiable on religious grounds if our bill were to pass.
Collect real-life stories to illustrate the very serious threat to religious liberty. We have no shortage of cases of religious institutions or associations being forced to violate their faith or close their doors. Movements exist, and are gaining momentum, to limit religious practice to private prayer and attendance at worship services. For example, there is a growing movement to ban circumcision. Under current legal precedent in many states, if a state, or even a city, were to pass such a ban, there would be no religious liberty objection that could prevail against it in court. Also, just a few years ago, the Connecticut legislature attempted to dictate how the Catholic Church had to organize itself, effectively attacking the proper authority of the local bishop. The media will mock the very idea that religious liberty is being threatened, so having real cases at your fingertips is a necessity.
Don’t be surprised by overt anti-religious bigotry. Most of the opposition to the bill in Kentucky was misguided but sincere, and based upon fears legitimately held but not legitimate on the merits. However, there were some, including some legislators, who opposed it simply because “the Catholics” were for it. One member, herself a former Unitarian minister, said on the floor of the House of Representatives that she wouldn’t meet with groups of Catholic constituents and would oppose anything the Catholic bishops proposed. That viewpoint was, thankfully, only held by a few, but it was jarring to encounter it in such a public way.
Know that you have greater numbers than your opponents. In Kentucky, we were very fortunate to have a broad coalition of religious groups who supported the religious liberty bill and were able to generate large numbers of phone calls and emails to legislators. The opposition was able to get a great deal of sympathetic media coverage, but outside of a couple of major urban areas, did not seem capable of generating large numbers of contacts.
Some of these lessons could be applied to any number of controversial issues. Unfortunately, however, protecting religious liberty has become one of the most controversial, and yet most important, issues we face. The ability to live out one’s faith free from state harassment is not only important for people of faith, but for the social and political health of our nation.
© 2013. Jason Hall. All Rights Reserved.