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Religious Freedom Bills Rooted In Fears Of Obama Policies

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, has been urged by the state's two U.S. senators, both Republicans, to veto a bill that would allow business owners to refuse service to gays or other groups that offend their religious beliefs.
Charles Dharapak
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, has been urged by the state's two U.S. senators, both Republicans, to veto a bill that would allow business owners to refuse service to gays or other groups that offend their religious beliefs.

Many religious leaders are feeling under siege. They believe the Obama administration is at worst hostile but at least "tone deaf" to the demands of faith. In their view, the government is attempting to make them act in ways that violate their convictions.

That is the context in which so-called religious freedom bills are being considered in Arizona and numerous other states.

The bills, which would allow business owners to refuse service to gays or other groups that offend their religious beliefs, appear discriminatory on their face.

John McCain and Jeff Flake, Arizona's two Republican U.S. senators, have called on GOP Gov. Jan Brewer to veto the legislation passed last week.

Whether these bills were born out of fear — or bigotry, as many opponents argue — they are marked by the notion that the culture is changing rapidly, in ways that undermine not just religious doctrine but the ability of individuals to act according to the dictates of their faith.

"There's a feeling that this administration is aggressively trying to restrict religious liberty in the United States," says Gary Bauer, a prominent social conservative. "There's just a pattern here that has led a lot of people of faith to believe that this is a period of the most severe legal challenges to what had previously been seen in this country as a fairly broad right."

A poll released last week by Lifeway Research, which is associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, found that 70 percent of senior Protestant pastors believe that religious liberty is in decline in this country and that 54 percent of the public agrees with them.

"This broader sense of anxiety that many conservative religious people have reaches out to many aspects of politics," says John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron.

"There's genuine fear that religious liberty could be severely restricted," he continues. "Whether we believe those fears are justified or not is a different question."

Disappointed In Obama

Next month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that turns on the question of whether the administration, under the terms of the Affordable Care Act, can force employers to provide birth control coverage even if doing so would violate their religious beliefs.

In 2012, the court ruled unanimously against a position taken by the administration regarding church personnel policies.

"The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. "But so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission."

President Obama's positions on these legal issues — as well as his support for same-sex marriage — has convinced some religious leaders that he and his administration are "the most tone-deaf to religious liberty in recent memory," as Roman Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia put it to

While arguing that religious liberty is "at risk," Chaput and other leaders concede that religious freedom is nowhere near as endangered in the United States as it is in, for example, North Korea, where last week an Australian missionary was detained for leaving religious pamphlets in a Buddhist temple.

But they argue Obama has not been sufficiently vigorous in speaking against religious persecution abroad, including mass killings of Christians in Nigeria.

"The State Department has downplayed the issue, the president has seldom raised it, nor have his representatives raised it in international meetings," says Bauer, a Republican presidential candidate in 2000 and president of the nonprofit group American Values. "They are much more likely to condemn a country for not allowing same-sex marriage, or other items on that agenda, than they are to condemn a country for persecuting Christians."

A Right To Refuse Service?

It's same-sex marriage that is driving the current spate of bills that seek to protect religious freedom at the state level. There have been a few isolated but widely cited examples of businesses — a baker, a florist — sued for refusing to provide services to gay couples who were getting married.

"They feel that the power of the state is being used to force them to engage in things that go against their conscience," says Green, the Akron political scientist.

Further protections are needed, says Terry Fox, senior pastor of Summit Church in Wichita, Kan. He supported legislation — passed by the state House but declared dead in the state Senate — that would give shop owners the ability to choose whether to withhold services to anyone, based on religious beliefs.

Homosexuals "would be included in that," Fox says, but he says the bill was not directed entirely at them. He argues it would have afforded protections to shop owners who are gay.

"What if Fred Phelps" — the notoriously homophobic leader of Westboro Baptist Church — "went to a business owned by a gay person and wanted to order signs, as he often does, saying 'God hates fags'?" Fox asks.

Separating Church And Commerce

Some pastors such as Fox worry that their ability to preach Scripture as they see fit might eventually be impinged upon, or that the government will force them to offer marriage rites to same-sex couples if they perform weddings at all.

That seems unlikely. But there's still the question of whether religious freedom under the First Amendment — which surely protects the ability of Americans to worship as they wish — trumps concerns about discrimination when it comes to commerce, where interactions with different types of people are a given.

"They all have at their core this idea that a person's religious beliefs trumps their need to serve the public," says Robert Boston, the author of the forthcoming book Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn't Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do.

Many if not most pastors and priests argue that believers should be able to live according to the principles of their faith in the public marketplace, as well as in private spaces.

"Freedom of religion has always been more than the right to practice prayer and rituals within the confines of a home or sanctuary," says the Oregon Family Council, which is sponsoring a ballot measure to protect religious liberty. "It's a right to have faith expressed in meaningful ways throughout the public square."

Supporters of the religious liberty bills say they support the Civil Rights Act and other laws intended to protected racial and ethnic minorities from discrimination in public accommodations.

Many of them argue that homosexuality is different. Fox, for instance, says that being homosexual is a choice, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary. It's not like being born, he says, as an African-American.

"There's certainly a consensus in our society that discrimination based on race, when you're operating a business is and should be unacceptable," Bauer says. "But when it comes to asking business people to cooperate in activities that they might find morally reprehensible and in violation of their religious beliefs ... is against everything the country is built on."

Coping With Change

The broader context to the whole debate is the fact that the country has experienced fairly dramatic cultural and demographic changes over the past couple of generations. There's nothing new about the argument that traditional values are being undermined, but it's become a particularly acute concern for social conservatives with the spread of same-sex-marriage rights.

"From the perspective of religious conservatives, there has been too much change, too quickly," says Boston, communications director for the advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

He says that conservative Christians are uncomfortable with the ways in which recent civil rights movements are changing America into a more open — and more secular — place.

"There's a great deal said in our country about tolerance," says state Sen. Phillip Gandy, a pastor and sponsor of a religious freedom bill passed by the Mississippi Senate last month. "It seems to me that people of faith are asked to be tolerant, but many people don't want to be tolerant of us and be respectful of our beliefs."

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Alan Greenblatt
Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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