‘Religious freedom’ is not an excuse for denying rights

By Henry Lui, Sha Tin College

Many in the United States use ‘freedom of religion’ to avoid serving people they disagree with – but that’s not what the term means

By Henry Lui, Sha Tin College |

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Many politicians are trying to pass stronger religious freedom laws, which would allow voters to refuse services to gay people. But not all voters – such as this crowd in Indiana, US – agree with that idea.

Ever since the US Supreme Court’s decision to legalise gay marriage, conservatives across the country have resisted the ruling by refusing to issue marriage licenses and other marital services to gay couples.

Although it is blindingly obvious that this “display of resistance” is both unlawful and illegitimate, these “gay marriage dissenters” (read: shy bigots) have claimed otherwise. Instead, they believe that their failure to comply with the law is protected under “religious freedom”.

There are several glaring issues with this line of argument. First, gay marriage does not infringe upon their rights as individuals. Denying service to individuals based on their sexual orientation is a form of discrimination, and “religious freedom” does not entitle individuals to discriminate against others.

The first contention is rather straightforward. Homosexual couples who choose to marry are not, in any way, affecting the livelihoods of those who are too intolerant to accept them. Sure, they may think that their right to marry is “disgusting” and “against the teachings of the Bible”, but those are not real, tangible harms. Secondly, the right for homosexual couples to marry does not erode the right for heterosexuals to marry – the two can coexist.

The most common form of “resistance” against gay marriage law in conservative American states is the refusal of services by certain businesses such as bakeries and wedding planners. Although the line between right and wrong is much less clear-cut in this situation (as businesses can refuse service for reasons other than race, religion, or ethnicity), denying service to gay couples in particular falls squarely within the definition of discrimination. This view was confirmed by a Colorado appeals court in August 2015, which declared the refusal of service unlawful.

“Religious freedom” has always been a highly vague term that is exploited by the Right to get away with just about everything. However, upon closer examination, we see that freedom of belief merely covers an individuals’ right to take part in the teaching, practice, worship, or observance of a particular religion; it does not allow you to force your religion upon others nor nullify the existing laws regarding discrimination.

Religion has absolutely no place in politics. As we’ve seen with numerous examples across the world, such as the United States, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, religion has the ability to cause significant harm to a large group of people if it is used to inform political decisions. While the right to religion should be protected, religious tolerance should not mean the acceptance of lower moral standards.

Secularism is the way to go for good governance.