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Religious liberty, marriage and the United States

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Regular debates, often broadcast on the radio or television, feature phrases such as “I have the right to practise my beliefs”, “He should be allowed to speak”, “I am offended”, “I have the right to offend”, “It’s a free country” and so on. It’s hard for me not to pound my head against the desk when these debates crop up because, in my opinion, there really doesn’t seem to be an end in sight, not least in the United States of America, where the concept of liberty is firmly embedded into the history of the nation, drilled into the mindset of every American, and preached from churches to town halls and on the steps of government buildings.

Separating liberty and the society of the United States is like trying to separate heat from the Sun. Despite our country’s own affiliation with liberty, right-wingers in Britain will never respond in the way that their American counterparts do when their liberties are under threat, be it from government legislation, economic regulation or international terrorism and war.

Once again the liberty debate has manifested itself in a religious form. To the cheer of many across the United States and the world, same-sex marriage was made legal a few months ago; but, as with anything, not everyone is best pleased. Kim Davis, a Kentucky clerk, has been sent to jail for refusing to grant same-sex couples (and indeed heterosexual couples) marriage certificates. Her reason for ignoring the new law stems from her Christian beliefs, and she isn’t alone. Cue the rampaging demands and cries of oppression from many religious and / or right-wing Americans and, no doubt, another campaign for the Tea Party to launch (some Republican presidential hopefuls have said they agree with her).

Supporters of the jailed clerk and those who share her beliefs are hoping that this will become something of a revolution. The pundits who witter on about ‘the war on Christianity’ or the ‘repression of religious freedom’ have more fuel to put into their relentless campaigning. Maybe gay rights activists have come away with more than they anticipated and accidentally given their opponents some help.

Campaigners for religious liberty do have a case: Mrs. Davis believes that marriage is between a man and a woman, yet the courts compel her to present marriage certificates to two men or two women. Mrs. Davis isn’t going to change her beliefs because the government says otherwise – her husband has said that she’ll stay in jail willingly. People who want homosexuals to be allowed to marry are asking Mrs. Davis to put her religious views to one side. Mrs. Davis and others, including some fellow clerks, feel that this is an attack on their liberty to practise religion.

Therefore, there is some sort of impingement on religious liberty, though all this bluster about a war against Christianity is a little far-fetched and deserves a lot of scrutiny. Outraged liberty-defending right-wingers usually defend their Christianity under attack but forget about the other religious beliefs of American citizens. They usually cite the Christians who wrote out the Constitution and who were looking for a Christian society to be born – of course, this is all wrong.

It’s interesting to note the amount of American organisations with ‘liberty’ in their names dedicated to promoting and defending conservative Christianity and traditional values. Mrs. Davis is seeking help from Liberty Counsel, an organisation “dedicated to advancing religious freedom“, whose publications include Same-Sex Marriage – Putting Every Household at Risk and activities include fighting against same-sex marriage and homosexual-parent adoption. Liberty Counsel works closely with the Freedom Federation, which is currently advertising a large 2016 religious event dubbed ‘A New Birth of Liberty’. It promises to be “a unique and inspirational God and Country event bringing people together around our shared values“. Similarly, Liberty University was created by a Christian pastor and describes itself as a Christian university, where student scientists are taught why evolution is inferior to creationism, and where students don’t have the liberty to smoke, go into a bedroom belonging to someone of the other sex or drink alcohol.

The ‘defence of religious liberty’ argument is not restricted to matters of marriage; it is usually made in debates concerning education, specifically when it comes to educating children about evolution. Teaching children about evolution only, or that evolution is fact, say religious defenders and creationists, is unfair, as it paints their beliefs as baloney and does not allow children the liberty (ho ho ho) to make up their own minds. “Teach the controversy” said Wendy Wright to Professor Richard Dawkins in an interview.

It’s pretty evident to everyone who is paying attention that there is a specific contradiction when you put religious liberty and marriage equality together – if your religious beliefs dictate that marriage is for a man and woman, that redefining marriage is only something that God can do, or plainly that homosexuality is immoral, then you can’t allow homosexual couples to be married; if you believe that marriage is about love between two people regardless of sex or sexuality, whether this view is secular or informed by religion, then you would allow homosexual couples to be married.

However, after a while the “teach the controversy” mantra reveals itself to be rather boring. By teaching evolution as fact, scientists are supposedly biased, arrogant individuals who will not admit their theory’s mistakes and will not allow any alternatives to be taught. Presenting the case like this looks like there really is an attack on religious liberty, with creationists unable to educate children in their way of thinking about the world. Unfortunately, the case made is itself loaded. Maybe we don’t teach the alternative because it is unscientific guff. We don’t teach children about the flat-Earth alongside the sphere-Earth, or that the Holocaust might not have occurred. Professor Lawrence Krauss has more to say:

And if you think about it, teaching kids – or allowing the notion that the Earth is 6,000 years old to be promulgated in schools is like teaching kids that the distance across the United States is about seventeen feet. That’s how big an error it is. Now you might say, look, a lot of people believe that, so don’t we owe it to them to allow their views to be present in school? Well, as I’ve often said, the purpose of education is not to validate ignorance but overcome it […] The last thing we want to do is water down the teaching of biology because some people don’t recognise that evolution happened. […] Technology and biotechnology will be the basis of our economic future, and if we allow nonsense to be promulgated in the schools, we do a disservice to our students, a disservice to our children, and we’re guaranteeing that they will fall behind in a competitive world that depends on a skilled workforce able to understand and manipulate technology and science.

So what do we do about religious liberty? Well, I am confident that the USA’s legislators are not motivated by a hatred of Christianity or other religions when they come to making decisions. I would argue that clerks and other people who are expected to do things against their conscience should either bite their tongues or resign from their posts. Moving speeches about the defence of Christianity and calls for same-sex marriage to be repealed should be left for political campaigns and social movements – you never know, you may end up changing the law in your favour. Lastly, when claiming that religious liberty is affronted, one must be honest and tell the world what your beliefs really are – that homosexuality is abomination, as Mrs. Davis’s husband said outside her jail – and then argue that you should be free to believe it. Edging around the disclosure of what one truly believes is a false boon to one’s pursuit of the liberty to believe it.

Update: minutes before this article was published, Mrs. Kim Davis was released from jail.

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Jack Harvey
Comment and Politics Editor 2015/2016, Editor 2016/2017. History and Philosophy undergraduate, seeking postgraduate study in Philosophy.