Guest Oped: The end of religious freedom: why everyone should be concerned

Recently, Arizona grabbed the national spotlight when its Legislature passed, and Gov. Jan Brewer subsequently vetoed, SB1062, what many national media outlets identified as the “religious freedom antigay bill.”

We were told SB1062 wasn’t rooted in “religious freedom,” but bigotry and it amounted to “Jim Crow” for homosexuals. Anyone who actually read the text of the bill was left scratching his head by this assessment.

SB1062 amended an already existing statue (41-1493) that exempted “a religious assembly or institution” from following any laws that placed a substantial burden on their “exercise of religion,” unless there was a compelling governmental interest that could not be realized in any other way.

The bill would have expanded this exemption to include individual persons, corporations, and other legal entities.

Opponents claimed robust support for religious freedom would allow business owners to pick and choose who they want to do business with, which would inevitably lead to widespread discrimination of minorities. But this position is far-fetched.

The number of business owners who would choose not to serve individuals because of their race, sex, religion or sexual orientation would be very, very low. They would receive significant media attention and social scrutiny and competitors would enter the marketplace, providing services to the excluded and offering everyone else an alternative place to shop.

This discussion of empirical issues related to SB1062 is simply a distraction, drawing our attention away from the ever-growing trend of publicly undermining religious freedom and disparaging people who do not accept and celebrate all lifestyles and systems of value. This trend should concern us all, not just those of us who attend church on Sunday.

Freedom of religion isn’t simply about choosing if you want to believe in God or what church to attend. Instead, it’s the moral freedom to live according to a set of values that you have chosen for yourself. This moral freedom allows you to become the person that you want to be, an essential component of living a good life.

Moral freedom manifests itself externally through your actions, labor and associations. As a result, there may be many individuals or groups that you wouldn’t want to support with your work. A pro-choice baker may not want to bake “abortion is murder” cupcakes for a Catholic’s anti-abortion rally. A Catholic florist may not want to provide flower arrangements to a homosexual couple for their wedding ceremony. Moral freedom goes both ways.

People aren’t bigots because they decline to provide their services under these circumstances. Bigotry is failing to tolerate someone because of his beliefs or lifestyle, not refusing to associate with him. There is a substantial difference between declining to provide services and going out of your way to make miserable the lives of individuals who hold differing moral views. My concern is not simply that we don’t recognize this difference but that we believe it is an appropriate function of government to compel individuals to associate in this way.

What is at issue is the appropriate level of state intrusion into the private lives, thoughts and values of individuals.

We view private businesses as public institutions, claim the state knows better than parents when it comes to the education of their children, and generally believe government is the solution to all social ills — if only the right laws were in place, everyone would be happier, healthier and financially better off.

State action is no panacea. It is chemotherapy. While government intervention into the private sphere may be a necessary evil at times to promote the freedom of all community members, too much intervention does more harm than good and undermines the very freedom that the state was established to promote.

Chris W. Surprenant is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of New Orleans, where he directs the Alexis de Tocqueville Project in Law, Liberty, and Morality.