“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his/her religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his/her religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
– Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The last few weeks have provided a civics lesson on balancing civil rights and religious freedom. As with any hot button issue, passion often clouded respectful dialogue and mutual effort at accommodation of divergent positions. For a nation founded on religious tolerance, the struggle seems endless, particularly since all Americans, whether gay or straight, desire “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
For many of us freedom of conscience or standing for religious freedom is a value. Quakers and people of other faith traditions choose to be conscientious objectors and refuse to fight in any war, because of religious convictions. Many religious people refuse to pay taxes because they do not want to pay for the manufacture of military arms. During the Contra War, I joined with thousands who did civil disobedience because of religious values.
Kim Davis, Rowan County Clerk in Kentucky, refused to issue marriage licenses, citing religious freedom. Two points were important to note. She could be faithful to her religious belief by allowing deputy clerks to sign the marriage licenses, or she could have resigned and spoken in front of media stating that her religious values cannot be compromised.
Columnist David Brooks notes, “There is a growing consensus that straight and gay people deserve full equality. If denying gays and lesbians their full civil rights and dignity is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.” Tolerance must be a two way street for those seeking civil rights and religious freedom. He cites tolerance in the Jewish community—Conservative Jews are generally polite toward Orthodox Jews, who would not use their cutlery. Men are generally polite to Orthodox women who would prefer not to shake their hands.
The 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act holds that government sometimes has to infringe on religious freedom in order to pursue equality, but when it does, it should have a compelling reason and should infringe in the least intrusive way possible. The road to civil rights and religious freedom is bumpy and demanding.
It is always easier to take on an absolutist position, but in a society of religious pluralism, absolutism does not work.