2014-01-10 / Columns

Politics & other Mistakes

God told me to
By Al Diamon

In Paul Kelly’s satirical song “God Told Me To,” there’s this line: “The wicked need chastisement, you know it’s either them or us.”

But neither satirizing nor chastising sinners has proven effective. Many of them keep getting re-elected. Then, to hear the godly tell it, they insist on passing laws expressly designed to thwart the righteous and exalt transgressors.

Republican state Sen. David Burns of Whiting claimed in a November oped in the Bangor Daily News that in recent years, we have seen “an unprecedented attack on religious liberties in which those affected have no legal recourse.”

In large part, Burns contends, these attacks have come from state government, which has passed laws that force believers to act in ways that are at odds with their values.

To deal with this intrusion into personal rights, Burns has sponsored L.D. 1428, “An Act To Protect Religious Freedom.” It says that if the state passes a law that conflicts with anyone’s “sincerely held religious tenet or belief,” that person can sue to be declared exempt from the statute and to receive damages.

Of course, the first thing opponents of this measure have claimed is that it’s intended to allow those opposed to same-sex weddings to continue to discriminate. But Burns insists, “This is not about gay marriage.”

Perhaps, but if so, it’s tough to figure out what it is about. Burns tried to come up with some examples, such as instances of municipalities denying churches’ requests to put crèches and religious displays on public property. But the First Amendment would seem to leave cities and towns with only two choices in dealing with these matters: They could permit any denomination – including atheists, Satanists and Zoroastrians – to erect such exhibits or they could prohibit all of them. To allow some and not others would be a clear example of the sort of religious discrimination Burns allegedly abhors.

In another case, the senator mentions a seaside school district that had to stop including a blessing of the fishing fleet in one of its events because it constituted government-endorsed prayer. Again, to have allowed the practice to continue would have violated the Bill of Rights. And the argument that “nondenominational” prayer would alleviate the problem falls apart when one attempts to cover the concerns of the previously referenced religions, not to mention those groups that forbid men and woman from worshipping together or those who believe prayer is only for thanking their deity and not for making requests.

Burns’ proposed law would do nothing to change these situations.

So, what would it do?

According to an online booklet put out by the Council on Religious Freedom and updated by the law firm of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood (both organizations that support laws such as the one Burns is sponsoring), this act would “not create certain victory for religious landlords or employers” who wanted to discriminate against gays, pregnant women or other currently protected classes.

Instead, says the booklet, it “would restore fairness to an arena in which the rights of privacy, association, and religion sometimes need to be balanced.”

Subtly put.

There’s already been a U.S. Supreme Court decision saying religious freedom laws can’t be used to justify racial discrimination. But as the booklet noted, “[T]he outcome may be less certain when non-racial characteristics such as gender, sexual orientation, or marital status are the basis of religiously motivated discrimination.”

Also subtly put.

What’s weird about this bill is that its supporters seem oblivious to its unintended consequences. How long after it passes will it be before the first polygamists show up at the town clerk’s office asking for a marriage license? What’s to stop the local Quaker meeting from filing suit to halt the property tax break the city of Bath recently gave to Bath Iron Works to aid in the shipyard’s expansion, arguing that using local tax dollars to build warships violates their sect’s belief in nonviolence? Wicca calls for respecting the Earth, which would seem to be grounds for asking a court to overturn almost any decision by the local planning board that involves digging or paving. And there’s no way atheists are going to accept tax exemptions for churches, since that effectively raises the tax bills of nonbelievers.

Rather than open the way for this sort of chaos in which nearly everyone could find some law they wished to exempt themselves from, it might be better to rely on the safeguard for religious freedom that’s already in place in our system.

It’s called elections. It allows the faithful to chastise the wicked by campaigning and voting against them. Like Burns’ bill, it doesn’t always work the way true believers might want it to. But unlike that measure, it’s unlikely to make things any worse for them.

And that’s something to be thankful for.

“Write the vision,” says the Bible. “Make it plain on tablets.” Or you could just email me at aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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