Monday, December 5, 2011

Religious Freedom, Association, and Discrimination

Last month, Catholic bishops in Maryland released a document entitled "The Most Sacred Of All Property: Religious Freedom and the People of Maryland" (PDF).

In this document, which discusssed how abortion rights and same-sex marriage are allegedly posing grave threats to religious freedom, the bishops encouraged people to "take positive steps to safeguard religious liberty for generations to come." They wrote:

"Religious freedom is so fundamental to our nature that not only does it uphold individual human dignity, but it is also integral to the establishment of a good and just society. Individuals who are free to exercise religious liberty are free to live out their faith in service to others and to build up the common good." (bold in original)

Early in November, this time in Kentucky, members of one small church notoriously voted to prohibit inter-racial couples from becoming members and participating in certain services. Here, the church enacted its prohibition after a white woman showed up to church with her boyfriend, who is black.

In the US, prohibitions on, and disapproval of, inter-racial relationships have historically been premised on white supremacist beliefs, sexist and racist thoughts about the special purity of white women, and anxieties about how inter-racial marriage might demonstrate that other races were morally and socially equal to whites. Historically, religious groups have both opposed and been in favor of inter-racial marriage.

More generally, it is true that many religious people have, throughout history, used their religious beliefs, power, and freedoms to "uphold individual human dignity," to help establish "a fair and just society," and to "build up the common good" (to use the bishops' phrases). But, a reading of history also shows that many religious people have also used their religions to degrade human dignity, to help establish an unfair and unjust society, and to tear down the common good.

So, what I find to be problematic about the bishops' statement, above, is the way it frames religious freedom as an absolute social good that, perhaps, must be preserved above all other social concerns. Oftentimes, religious freedom is but one of several valid and competing social goods that a society must balance.

The church in Kentucky doesn't appear to be suggesting a ban on the legal recognition of inter-racial marriage, and so I don't think a direct comparison can be made to the SSM advocacy that many religious groups engage in. But, I am interested in hearing what other people think about with respect to the following questions:

(a) What do people on all sides of the SSM debate think about the Kentucky church's policy on couples who are in inter-racial relationships? Oftentimes, in the US, the state allows private organizations to set its own membership rules, even if those rules are discriminatory. But, should private organization be allowed to discriminate in such a way, when doing so perpetuates ideas that many reasonable people in a society reject (or claim to reject)? Should this right to discriminate only be extended to religious groups with religious or "sincerely-held" beliefs?

(b) Say a religious group was receiving money from the state to place children in foster homes. Following a court decision allowing inter-racial marriage, what if the religious organization chose to end its foster program rather than place children with inter-racial couples? Could it fairly say that its religious freedom was being infringed upon?

What if the state wasn't providing money to the religious group, but still prohibited the group from discrimination?

This conversation isn't intended to be a "gotcha" for purposes of demonstrating anyone's hypocrisy, racism, or homophobia.
Rather, my intent is to spark a conversation about the competing interests of (a) a private organization's right to freely discriminate/associate, (b) a church's right to exercise its religion (assuming, at least for the sake of argument, that the church's prohibition is religiously-based), and (c) the community's right not to have an organization in the community that perpetuates racism and white supremacy.

I'm not necessarily looking for legal arguments here, although feel free, but I think the questions are interesting from a moral and normative standpoint as well.

[Cross-posted at Family Scholars Blog]

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