COMMENTARY: A parched patch of prejudice

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c. 2014 Religion News Service

(RNS) Conservative Christians are claiming that their religious freedom requires free rein for legalized discrimination.

That’s a clever argument. It seems to claim the moral high ground, to align itself with basic constitutional principles, and to put bigots in the victim role.

The argument is utter nonsense, of course. Freedom of belief has nothing to do with compelling other people to bow to that belief. If anything, freedom of belief should lead to a broad umbrella of diversity, not a parched patch of prejudice.

The First Amendment to the Constitution, after all, sought to guarantee freedom — of religion, speech, the press, assembly and petitioning the government — not to grant freedom to some and not others, depending on the whims of the powerful or pious.

What’s next? Disobeying traffic signs because a gay-friendly city government put them up? Drawing down on a policeman because he happens to be gay? Obeying only those laws that no gay person supports or benefits from?

“Religious freedom,” as used by the right wing, is like earlier shouts of “America first” and “states’ rights” and “Christian nation.” It is a bullying slogan to justify dragging others down to their level of fear and loathing.

Faith isn’t about building walls, but opening doors. Faith isn’t about naming and smiting enemies, but loving all, even enemies. Faith isn’t about judging others, but setting aside the instinct to judge and trusting God to be just. Faith isn’t about denying services and rights to people who are different, but setting a table where all are fed.

But even if these conservatives have a firm religion based on discrimination and sexual identity, that is their business, not public policy. They can shout their convictions as much as they want, but they cannot impose them on others.

The only “freedom” at stake here is their desired freedom to bully and badger fellow citizens whom they detest. That isn’t religious freedom. It’s a violation of the Constitution and the laws of this free land.

It is also an offense against a Savior who died for all, not just for the like-minded.

I don’t suggest we shut down anyone’s beliefs or convictions. That’s the nature of a free land: Someone is going to hold a view that I consider heinous, but that is her right.

We have fought hard in this country, however, to clarify that private beliefs and public policies are different and that one’s private beliefs don’t confer any right to take away another’s rights.

Christian conservatives, after all, aren’t speaking the absolute will and word of God any more than I am. Christianity is a broad umbrella, and they are just one cohort beneath it.

America’s wild decision to have open borders and a democratic form of government means we will always be a rainbow nation. We will have people speaking different languages, eating different foods, worshipping and serving God in different ways, making different consumer decisions, working in different fields and celebrating unique identities.

This works because we have a common currency, common laws, public services open to all and common respect for the rights of others.

I realize that many Christian conservatives feel strongly about homosexuality. But those feelings aren’t the law of the land. Nor should they be.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)