Religious Freedom?

Dear Editor,

A decade ago, I sat in the Senate gallery at the Roundhouse as senators debated a proposed law that would allow for domestic partnerships. I listened to those opposed argue the law would impinge on their “religious freedom” because they would be forced to practice against their beliefs. This was a lie on its face at the time, as the state wasn’t proposing to force anyone to act against their beliefs, they were simply creating a new pathway for same-sex couples to have legal recognition by the state. No religion was going to be forced to perform a wedding that contradicted their beliefs. But the argument persisted: this should not be law because it goes against our beliefs. And all the while, I wondered: “What about my beliefs? What about my right to practice my own religion without hindrance?”

As a minister in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, I am a leader in a faith that is welcoming and affirming to the LGBTQ+ members of my human family. For decades before marriage equality became law, we blessed the unions of committed same-sex couples within the limits that the laws of the time allowed (i.e. “it only counts within the faith”) We campaigned for, and then performed the first same-sex weddings in Massachusetts. The practice of my religion has historically included the solemnizing of the marriage of two consenting, committed adults, no matter the identities of that couple.

So why, I wondered, should this other religion be able to codify their beliefs into civil law and policy in such a way that my own religious freedom is hindered?

I’m still asking this question today.

Valerie Fox has announced that she and other parents are ready to sue LAPS for “teaching LGBTQ.” She goes on, as is her right, to express her beliefs (which I won’t repeat here, as I don’t want to give them any more oxygen). I will exercise my right to express that I find her beliefs to be hateful, abhorrent, and contributing to an atmosphere of hostility towards the mere existence of LGBTQ+ persons and those who love and cherish them. I think the expression of her beliefs is an act of community endangerment – no one’s beliefs should be allowed to put anyone under a threat of existential peril for the act of just being.

But, although I abhor Ms. Fox’s beliefs, what I cannot do is demand that she change them to conform to my religious conscience. I can have a conversation and try to persuade. But I can neither force a change of heart in anyone nor demand that the state enforce my beliefs over hers.

And yet, Ms. Fox and her cohort have announced their intention to do just that – to use the tools of the state to force LAPS to privilege their beliefs over others, to transform their personal beliefs into public policy imposed on all. The justification for the suit is the perceived threat to their religious freedom (and the implication that “LGBTQ” is an organized religion rather than an innate state of being).

Why should your religious freedom be privileged over others’ in the public sphere?

The “religious freedom” canard is as much of a distracting lie now as it was a decade ago. The freedom of the plaintiffs to practice their religion as they see fit is in no way threatened. If they have a deep religious disagreement with what is taught in a public, funded-by-citizens-of-diverse-beliefs institution, then they have the freedom to pull their children out of the public schools and homeschool them or place them in a private religious school to their liking. I understand that these may be difficult and costly alternatives, and that LAPS may be the option that works best for your circumstances. But, if you choose the public schools, you have to accept that, in a publicly funded institution, diversity and differences (in religion, in worldview, in race, in sexual identity, in so many other spheres) are simply facts of life.

If you are afraid that these facts are a challenge to you and your family’s sincerely held religious beliefs, you have the freedom to respond by teaching your own children what your beliefs are. Actually, you have a responsibility to do that, as the place for religious instruction is in the home and the church. No one else can do that for you. Certainly not the public schools.

To ask the state to do it for you is to let go of your rights and responsibilities. And to ask the state to privilege your beliefs over others and force them on the rest of our community is in this instance a threat to some people’s right to simply exist, and a threat to everyone’s religious freedom.

Rev. John Cullinan
Unitarian Church of Los Alamos