In the past few weeks, we’ve seen headlines about a Kentucky county clerk who was sent to jail briefly, because she refused to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples, based on her religious beliefs.
As with virtually every recent controversy on this subject, this one led to an huge amount of rhetoric by people who lack even the most rudimentary understanding of what the laws regarding religious liberty entail. There is the old adage that “ignorance of the law is no excuse”, and that certainly applies here — the law of religious liberty is really not that hard to learn and understand.
The most egregious example of public, culpable ignorance can be found in a recent article by a physicist, who entitled his piece “All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists”. I generally couldn’t care less what a militant atheist might say. But I couldn’t resist commenting on one thing the professor says in his screed, namely:
To what extent should we allow people to break the law if their religious views are in conflict with it?
There’s another old saying, “A man has to know his limitations”. I am a lawyer, and I know virtually nothing about physics. I therefore have the good sense not to write a single word about physics, pretending that I know what I’m talking about. Would that the professor had the same sense, and refrained from pretending that he knew the first thing about the law.
This is really not that difficult. The laws of the United States — including the First Amendment to our Constitution — are actually quite clear in recognizing that the government cannot easily impose laws upon people when they conflict with the person’s religious beliefs. In other words, when a person claims a religious exemption, they are not breaking the law, they are merely asserting their basic human rights. If the government or a private person fails to recognize that exemption, they are the ones who are breaking the law, not the religious believer.
A very clear example can be found in the Hobby Lobby decision, in which the Supreme Court held that the federal government violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by not recognizing that the company was exempt from the HHS contraception/abortion mandate, due to their religious beliefs. Or in the hundreds of civil lawsuits where employers are required to recognize religious holidays or clothing, cities are banned from restricting street-corner evangelists, schools are prevented from closing religious clubs or newspapers, etc.
And it doesn’t stop with the Constitution. Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, a law that has been in effect for over forty years, utterly rejects the idea that an employee has to surrender their religious beliefs as a condition of keeping a job. Instead, it imposes a duty on the employer to exempt employees from work requirements that conflict with their religion, so long as that does not impose an undue hardship on the employer. In other words, for the last four decades, employers are required by law to make reasonable accommodations for their employees, not vice versa.
Similar statutes exist in every state, and in many localities. Here in New York, our state Human Rights Law has been in existence for about seventy years. It explicitly imposes on employers a duty to make reasonable accommodations for sincerely-held religious beliefs. There are also other many other laws that protect religious liberty from government imposition. Most notable are federal and state Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. One time, I counted the number of religious exemptions recognized in New York law, and managed to find about two dozen. More legislation is being proposed, such as the First Amendment Defense Act.
In short, the law protecting religious liberty is well-established, and can be easily accessed and understood. Certainly a person who opines on the law in a public forum should be expected to inform themselves of these basic facts.
So it’s hard to chalk these kinds of statements and arguments to good faith ignorance. Rather, it seems more likely that the person is inveterately hostile to religion, and, due to this animus, will not even consider the facts or arguments that stand against their position.
I think, if you were to consult a dictionary, that would be a pretty good definition of bigotry.