Religious Freedom is a Poor Cloak for Prejudice

One thing I have noticed in the rightward lurch of the federal judiciary over the years, especially the Supreme Court (and rulings that appear intended to repeal the entirety of the 20th century), is how often they grant relief to plaintiffs using religious freedom as their rationale. Such cases used to be about believers being able to observe their religious practice as they chose without being prevented from doing so by the government, or by secular employers, with accommodations being made where possible. At the very start of my career in IT, my employer tried to compel me to work on Saturdays (my day of worship as a practicing Seventh-day Adventist), and I ultimately quit that company rather than yield to the pressure (or pursue a court case).

Now religious freedom in the United States has been distorted to any and every expression of Christian faith in any context, aided and abetted by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, as an exemption to the laws everyone else in this country must adhere to. The latest example of this is the case 303 Creative v Elenis, recently decided 6-3 in favor of 303 Creative. Despite the proprietor of 303 Creative never actually being contracted by a gay couple to create a wedding website, and despite not even having expanded her business to offer wedding website services, “she brought a pre-enforcement challenge to the Colorado law, worried, as Gorsuch wrote, “the State will force her to convey messages inconsistent with her belief that marriage should be reserved to unions between one man and one woman,” according to the Washington Post. So the very prospect of a same-sex couple asking a public business to accept their money in exchange for a service was so alarming that the plaintiff chose to file lawsuits to prevent it. And after numerous losses in lower courts finally received a ruling in her favor from our nation’s highest court.

This idea that engaging in a business transaction constitutes an endorsement of a practice someone deems sinful seems to me either a well-intentioned but significant misunderstanding and misreading of scripture, or a deliberate distortion intended to justify ones pre-existing prejudices. When I think about where in the Bible a Christian might look in order to guide their decisions in a matter like this, I think of the works of the Apostle Paul.

After these events Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. He came to them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them, and they worked together, for they were tent-makers by trade. And Paul was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.

Acts 18:1-4

Tent-making was how Paul, Aquila, and Priscilla earned money to support themselves as they pursued their main goal of spreading the Gospel. If any evidence exists that any of them refused to make or sell tents for Corinthians who were sinners, I haven’t read it in the Bible. If any evidence exists that selling tents was somehow an endorsement of whatever lifestyle Jews or Greeks or anyone else in Corinth was engaged in, I have not read it in Acts 18 or anywhere else in Acts. So how exactly does a Christian in the United States come to the conclusion that making a website for money (or a cake) if the customers are a same-sex couple is an endorsement of same-sex marriage? Are we to believe that the modern Christian in the United States somehow has less religious freedom than Aquila and Priscilla, who were in Corinth after leaving Rome because Jews were being persecuted by the Emperor Claudius? Reading further in Acts, we find Paul engaging with both Jews and Greeks in Ephesus, Macedonia, as well as in Greece.

Given previous rulings by the Supreme Court, I’m not surprised by the ruling in her favor. What was surprising was this article in The New Republic, which suggests that the plaintiff or her lawyers fabricated a gay couple attempting to violate her religious freedom. If true, the owner of 303 Creative built this entire case on a lie.

The start of a thread by Rev. Solomon Missouri

Rev. Missouri, senior pastor at Invitation AME Zion Church in Snow Hill, NC is refreshingly blunt in his perspective regarding the dishonesty of 303 Creative’s position. But the questions he ends the threads with are the most important for anyone who points to their Christian faith as the rationale for their actions:

What gospel ethic—what value is communicated in this? Where is the divine in this?

Rev. Solomon Missouri tweets

While Rev. Missouri asks the question of Christian evangelicals in general, it should be asked specifically of white evangelicals. What gospel ethic is communicated by prevailing upon a secular court to sanction your desire to reject the provision of a service to people who haven’t asked you to provide it? A similar question could be asked of the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop. Contrast their example with that of the Apostle Paul, and how he engaged with both Jews and Greeks—both in his trade as a tent maker, and in his ministry work. Christianity spread throughout the Asia of Paul’s day, while many of the membership rolls in Christian churches in the U.S. are shrinking. Numerous Christian denominations (including my own) are still fighting over whether or not women should hold pastoral roles despite claiming to believe in a Bible with numerous examples of women in leadership in both the Old and New Testaments. The same Aquila and Priscilla of Acts 18:1-4 can be found later (in Acts 18:26) explaining the way of God more accurately to the evangelist Apollos. Rev. Missouri’s question bears repeating in this context: what gospel ethic–what value is communicated in denying particular titles to women in the service of God? Is the gospel well-served by putting incompetent and/or untutored men in the office of pastor over women to whom God grants the same spiritual gifts as men?

A friend of mine shared this interesting Substack post with me which asserts that religion has become a luxury good. This quote toward the end of the piece is an unfortunately accurate picture of the state of Christianity in the United States today:

Increasingly religion has become the enclave for those who have lived a “proper” life. College degree, middle class income, married with children. If you check all those boxes, the likelihood of you regularly attending church is about double the rate of folks who don’t.

This is also troublesome for American democracy, as well. Religion, at it’s best, is a place where people from a variety of economic, social, racial, and political backgrounds can find common ground around a shared faith. It’s place to build bridges to folks who are different than you. Unfortunately, it looks like American religion is not at its best.

Instead, it’s become a hospital for the healthy. An echo chamber for folks who did everything “right”, which means that is seeming less and less inviting to those who did life another way.

Christianity as practiced in the U.S. today is definitely not inviting to those who did life another way, and increasingly not even to those inside the enclave.

Life and Religious Liberty for Me, But Not for Thee

With Amy Coney Barrett now on the Supreme Court and weighing in on cases, the payoff to the evangelical right for their unstinting support of Donald Trump becomes even clearer than it has already been.  She joined a narrow majority to block COVID-19 limits on church occupancy.  Despite numerous cases of COVID-19 outbreaks tied to church events (whether worship, choir practices, or other gatherings), despite over a quarter million Americans dead from COVID-19, the Supreme Court majority ignored the known science around how COVID-19 spreads because of “religious liberty”.  Much has been made of the fact that six of the nine justices on the Supreme Court are Catholic, but there were Catholic justices (including the Chief Justice) in the minority.  Even the Pope was critical of those protesting restrictions on church attendance.

As someone who felt compelled to quit my first full-time job out of college because of constant pressure from my employer to work on my day of worship (as a Seventh-day Adventist, my family and I typically attend church on Saturday), I am angry that religious liberty is being used as the pretext to invalidate measures intended to preserve public health.  When those measures (and stricter ones) have been applied elsewhere (parts of Europe, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, etc), we’ve seen them work successfully in slowing and stopping the spread of COVID-19.  Particularly because the same Supreme Court was not at all concerned about religious liberty when it came to the Muslim travel ban (the Quakers, among others, see the hypocrisy clearly), the ruling seems especially hollow.  Plenty of churches (including my own) have stayed remote throughout the pandemic, either broadcasting services from empty sanctuaries except for themselves and musicians, or from home.  I’ve given offering and tithed online.  It is by no means an ideal experience, but given my own comorbidities it is better than risking my twins being orphaned.

Because Supreme Court confirmation fights (and the attendant press coverage) have focused so narrowly on where a nominee stands regarding Roe v. Wade, no attention has been paid to their stances regarding other issues quite relevant to life–and death. Invalidating restrictions on church occupancy during a pandemic is just one of the ways in which “pro-life” applies very poorly to describing where a justice actually stands.  As the clock runs out on the Trump presidency, the Department of Justice under Bill Barr is accelerating the pace of executions.  Barrett has already participated in her first capital punishment case on the Supreme Court.  She did not recuse herself, nor register her opposition to the execution going forward as justices in the minority did.

I suppose it has always been this way, but when a lot of people talk about religious liberty, they only want it for themselves–and no one else.