Recently, we have had a series of stories where there have been arguments put forth that there should be "exemptions" in non-discrimination laws for religious beliefs.
Yesterday's column by Licia Corbella in the Calgary Herald positively oozed with a smug sense of religious entitlement, and attempted to hold atheists responsible for the acts of some truly vile members of humanity's past. The column ended with a claim that Christianity has been discriminated against.
Then, on Huffington Post, we find the owners of a bakery in Oregon shutting their doors in the wake of refusing to provide a cake to a lesbian wedding.
"I think [the state labor commissioner] is going to have decide what's more important: The Oregon State Constitution, or the statute that was passed in 2007," he said at the time. "They dropped the ball by not putting in any exemption for religious beliefs."Which leads very nicely into the issue that I want to address. Non-discrimination statutes usually end up existing because identifiable groups are being marginalized routinely by overt discrimination.
When someone makes a call for "religious beliefs exemption", what they are actually calling for is the right to continue imposing their religious beliefs on everybody around them. This creates a false hierarchy of rights.
The point of civil rights is that they are equal across the board. In order for this to be true, we must acknowledge them as clearly individual rights. The notion of "Freedom of Religion" grants every person the free right to believe and worship as they see fit. No problem. What it does not grant anyone is the right to impose their religious beliefs on others who do not share them.
Similarly, non-discrimination laws, which often are based on gender or race but more recently have been written to include members of the LGBT community as well, essentially put into the language of law explicit protections for those who are often treated as second class citizens or have historically been denied full rights under law.
The problem that arises here is obvious. The minute that there is an explicit exemption for one particular kind of right over another right, the law has created a hierarchy of rights where the very notion of equality itself precludes a hierarchy.
What is truly unfortunate is that so often religion is used as an excuse by those who engage in blatant discrimination. Consider the following from the Oregon bakery incident.
In response to the complaint, Melissa Klein argued that turning away the couple was "definitely not discrimination at all."
"We don't have anything against lesbians or homosexuals," she said in August. "It has to do with our morals and beliefs. It's so frustrating because we went through all of this in January, when it all came out."Let me be utterly clear about this: refusing service to someone based on a grounds such as the other person's sexuality is discriminatory. Period. It doesn't matter one iota that the refusal has its roots in that person's religion - especially when that person is running a business that serves the general public. A bakery serves the general public, as does a florist. The only way that I can see such a business getting away with such discrimination is if they structured themselves as some kind of "society" with restricted membership. (How they would do that _and_ be a sustainable business is beyond me, but I suppose they could try)
The minute that laws are written which give "exemptions" based on other rights, we create an environment where Orwell's "Animal Farm comes to life, and some are more equal than others.