Yesterday I concluded a post about the arc of the access to marriage debate by observing that the main argument against access to marriage right now seems to be one grounded in the assertion of freedom of religion. This isn’t the only place freedom of religion crops up in opposition to lesbian/gay equality claims. A I’ve noted in the past, you also see this when it comes to state-financed child placement services. (There was a thoughtful analysis of this issue on my local NPR station recently.)
There’s a quite current incarnation of this struggle. Virginia is about to enact legislation that would allow agencies that receive state funding to deny placements that conflict with religious or moral teaching. Practically what this means is that agencies would be allowed to refuse placements to lesbian and gay people. Discrimination of this sort would be permissible and that is justified on the grounds of an accommodation of religious freedom.
There’s a few things worth pointing out here. What the Catholic agencies want is an exception to a general non-discrimination principle. In general, the state cannot discriminate like this, but private actors are free to do so. So it’s only if religiously affiliated agencies accept state funding that they need to comply with non-discrimination provisions in the first place. The legislation allows them to accept funding and discriminate.
This issue has been very much bound up with the lesbian/gay rights culture wars., but it really transcends that. The freedom to discriminate in the name of religion claim is a general one and that, I think, allows us to consider it in a different context–one that is no longer so wrought.
It was not so long ago that interracial marriage was criminal in Virginia. (For history lesson, you could do worse than watch this movie, I guess.) At the time, the opposition to interracial marriage was at least in part rooted in religion. (You should see the quote the trial judge used to excuse the law.) So imagine that there was a religion today that still viewed race mixing as sinful. (There probably is one, actually.)
What would we say if a church-sponsored agency invoked the Virgina law to 1) take state funding but 2) deny placements with interracial couples. What response would we have if they justified the discriminatory conduct as an exercise of freedom of religion?
I do not mean to ask this as a rhetorical question, exactly. I ask it because I think it is a different way of thinking about whether religious freedom should justify discrimination. Perhaps it should–but if it should, then it seems to me it has to justify all forms of discrimination, not just ones that are controversial.
Maybe this means I mis-titled this post. Perhaps the question is “should religious freedom justify state-funded discrimination?” I wonder (and worry) about how many people think the answer to that is “yes.”