Coffin, 3-9-2014

My Word: Don’t use religious liberty to discriminate

JimCoffin(Orlando Sentinel, March 9, 2014)

By James Coffin 

“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” But what happens in neighboring Arizona doesn’t necessarily stay in Arizona; it could be copied elsewhere.

That should concern us. Because Arizona’s legislators recently passed a shockingly ill-advised bill that would allow business owners, based on their religious beliefs, to refuse service to same-sex couples. Although Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed it, the fact that the bill ever passed the Legislature is disturbing.

In the United States, individuals and groups have a long history of discrimination against fellow humans.

But over many decades, legislators and judges have curtailed our freedom to negatively impact others’ lives based on our own prejudices. Such government actions have been a great blessing to the targets of discrimination.

Although anti-discrimination laws limit our freedom to say by our actions that we view certain categories of our fellow humans as inferior, unworthy or evil, they also help ensure justice for all.

Before such government intervention, if my prejudice were against blacks, Catholics, Jews, atheists, women or a long list of others, I was at liberty to withhold services from them that I’d willingly provide to those I viewed as worthy human beings.

The common denominator among the preceding categories is that, at some point in our national history, religion has been used to justify discrimination against each group.

But wait, some say. If religious liberty is one of our nation’s foundational values, don’t I have the right to discriminate against any who offend my religious sensitivities — including the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community, which was the specific motivation for Arizona’s recent legislation?

There’s a saying that we should be careful what we wish for — we just might get it.

If, based on my personal religious convictions, I demand the right to discriminate against any person or group I find offensive, why should I assume that those who are religiously offended by something about me won’t return the favor?

Cathi Herrod of the Center for Arizona Policy argues that “the Arizona bill has a very simple premise: that Americans should be free to live and work according to their religious faith. It’s simply about protecting religious liberty …”

I disagree. Such a blank check for discrimination is a distortion of both religious liberty and religion itself.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.