Playing chicken with religious liberty

Hopefully many readers have been to Chick-fil-A recently. After the company’s president expressed his belief that marriage is the union of a husband and wife, four big town mayors have threatened to prevent the company from doing business in their cities and a host of lesser officials have made similar comments.

This is likely bluster, of course, and actually carrying through these threats would be clearly unconstitutional. That these officials feel comfortable even issuing the threats illuminates an ominous shift in the way some elites now view our First Freedom, religious liberty.

The U.S. Constitution protects “free exercise,” not just freedom to worship privately. It presupposes believers will act on their convictions and that the government will not interfere with those actions.

This tolerance was the primary theme in the law of religious freedom for most of the nation’s history though it was only imperfectly realized (especially for minority religions). The high point for the U.S. Supreme Court’s recognition of the unique status of the First Freedom came in the Sherbert v. Verner decision in 1963. There the court noted that this fundamental right should not be burdened except under the most pressing circumstances (think a religion that wants to practice human sacrifice). Unfortunately, the court has since backed away from this commonsense understanding.

So, how did we get from a period where religious liberty was understood to be primary in our freedoms and given great respect to a place where municipal leaders feel comfortable threatening economic harm to a business owner who believes marriage still means what it has always meant?

There’s a lot that could be said to explain. One key element is that some government and legal elites have decided to prioritize a warped version of sexual freedom over all other freedoms, even one most clearly provided for (not just implied) in the Constitution.

This means that we must insist on realigning our society’s priorities with those of the Framers.

In November 2012, four states will vote on the definition of marriage. Laws protecting marriage are one way to remind the government of proper priorities. Redefining marriage threatens religious liberty because it sends a message that those who support marriage (many of whom have a view of marriage closely tied to their religious beliefs) are discriminators. (Those who want to give to these four campaigns at the same time can do that here.) Religious liberty is clearly becoming a target because it conflicts with the values of the sexual revolution. It must be protected. It is an issue that affects all people, not just members of particular denominations. Now is the time to make a stand.

Oh, and enjoy your chicken.