Editor’s note: Amid the discussion about the religious liberty laws in Indiana and Arkansas this week, there’s been a lot of misinformation—and a lot of thoughtful concerns about what religious freedom laws actually allow and what they ban. We talked to Heritage Foundation’s William E. Simon Fellow Dr. Ryan T. Anderson to get the facts—and to find out whether, as your liberal relatives will likely argue as the political discussions happen this holiday, the original Indiana religious freedom law would have allowed discrimination.
What’s religious liberty all about?
Religious liberty is about protecting people’s fundamental natural rights. People have rights—including the right to pursue religious truth and, within the limits of justice and the common good, to act on their judgments of what truth demands. People have these rights as individuals and in the communities they form: their churches, their schools, their charities and their businesses.
Religious Freedom Restoration Acts protect this fundamental right. They prohibit the government from placing substantial burdens on religious exercise unless the government can show a compelling interest in burdening religious liberty and do so through the least restrictive means.
One of the hallmarks of religious liberty protections is that they protect people of all faiths, even if their beliefs seem unfounded, flawed, implausible or downright silly. Recognition of a right to religious freedom does not, however, depend on religious skepticism or relativism. Rather, it rests on the intelligible value of the religious quest—the activities of seeking to understand the truth about ultimate questions and then conforming one’s life accordingly, with authenticity and integrity.
What happened with Indiana’s religious liberty law and the “fix”?
The law needed no fix.
The fix that they came up with at the last minute was rushed to passage, and it actually creates more problems than it solves. It now says that sexual liberty should always trump religious liberty, and that’s not right.
We should have a balancing test where religious liberty and sexual liberty can coexist, and that’s what the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does. But the fix that they rushed to come up with says that sexual orientation and gender identity laws will always trump the religious liberty law. That’s wrong.
So let’s be honest here, I mean, are you basically saying that it’s OK to discriminate?
Not at all, what I’m suggesting is that everyone should have their rights protected, and that a court of law should adjudicate when those rights come into tension.
But if you think that if you do have a gay couple coming into, let’s say the pizza parlor, that they shouldn’t be able to be served? Are you saying that gay people shouldn’t be served?
Of course they should be served, and I don’t know of any religion that teaches that you can’t serve a slice of pizza to someone because they’re gay or lesbian.
And I don’t know of any business owner that has claimed that they won’t serve gays or lesbians at their restaurant.
The only religious liberty concerns that we’ve seen in this general area involve weddings. Wedding photographers, florists who provide flowers for weddings, bakers who bake wedding cakes—they’re happy serving gays and lesbians for get-well-soon flowers and happy-birthday cakes.
Their only objection is to the same-sex wedding. And I don’t know why we need to have the government to coerce a 70-year-old grandmother into violating her beliefs about marriage.
This is about the civil rights issue of our time. Don’t gays and lesbians have civil rights?
Of course this is about civil rights, and the very first civil right that our Constitution protects, in the very first amendment to our Constitution, is the civil right of religious liberty.
And so we don’t want to set up a situation in which sexual liberty trumps religious liberty. We want to have these things coexist, so that gay couples should be free to get flowers or get a cake for their wedding, but the government shouldn’t coerce any particular person into providing those flowers or that cake for that same-sex wedding.
Let’s look at this other side, and that is when we take a look at what’s before the Supreme Court. They’re going to make a decision at the end of June. If they make same-sex marriage the law of the land, won’t you then be breaking the law?
Not at all. The Court might rule, inappropriately, to say that all 50 states have to recognize the union of two men or two women as a marriage, but the government need not say that every organization in America has to help celebrate that marriage.
We can live and let live. The same-sex couple is free to live and to love how they want to; the Evangelical grandmother should be free to run her business how she wants to. That’s coexistence, that’s tolerance, that’s what America’s all about.
Why don’t you want gays and lesbians to be free?
I do! I want gays and lesbians to be free to live in accordance with their beliefs.
I just don’t want the government to coerce Evangelicals or Mormons or Muslims or Jews or Catholics—or anyone else for that matter. I think religious people can be free to live in accordance with their beliefs, gays and lesbians (many of whom are religious, by the way) can be free to live in accordance with their beliefs. No coercion is necessary.
You’re a millennial. Why are you out of step with the rest of your peers on these issues?
When I was an undergraduate at Princeton, most of my liberal classmates disagreed with me, but they didn’t have many good reasons for their beliefs.
This got me thinking about these issues, and I’ve actually come to the conclusion that the best of human reason, the best of science, the best of philosophy is on the side of marriage as the union of man and a woman. I wrote a book about it that the Supreme Court cited. So I think that’s good reason, and I’m going to continue advocating for the truth.
Do you think that there is a political machine behind these attacks on marriage and religious liberty? Is there a lot of money being thrown at it to take you down and others down on your perspective?
Without a doubt, there’s a well-organized, well-financed campaign, and you can see this in the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, speaking out against Indiana, boycotting the state.
You’ve seen hosts of big businesses saying that they want the freedom to live in accordance with their values, but they want to deny that freedom to small businesses.
You’ve seen mayors and governors saying that they’re going to boycott the state of Indiana when all Indiana wants is to protect its citizens from government coercion. So there’s a lot of hypocrisy going on in this debate.