Whose Liberty?

The New York Times recently ran a piece about evangelicals and highlighted Dick and Betty Odgaard, an Iowa couple who owned a wedding chapel.  When they refused to host a wedding for a homosexual couple fines and pressure were levied forcing them to close the chapel. The article is interesting for many reasons, but there is one quote in the article that stands out because it stands at the crux of the issue.

Lee Stafford, one of the men who filed suit against the Odgaards said, “Their religious beliefs say they don’t approve of gay marriage, but my religious beliefs say that we can. Why does their religion trump mine?” Mr. Stafford’s quote demonstrates a faulty understanding of religious liberty that ultimately leads to the complete denial of all religious liberty.

In the first place, Mr. Stafford recognizes the differences in religious beliefs between him and the Odgaards. He appears to embrace the idea of a pluralistic society in which people must have the right to believe as they choose. If people cannot believe as they wish, no meaningful diversity or freedom can exist.

Freedom of belief, practice, and speech are at the heart of the First Amendment. The American experiment prizes the protection of certain inalienable liberties that are not granted by the government. Rather than granting these rights, the government merely recognizes and protects them. To put it another way, a government does not have the power to control the thoughts of its people. The right to believe as one wishes is granted by the Creator. Therefore, a government does not have the power to grant people that right. However, if a government does not protect the right to believe, practice, and speak then all other rights are quickly undermined as the government begins the totalitarian task of outlawing certain beliefs.

The second half of Mr. Stafford’s statement is problematic. When he question why the Odgaards’ beliefs trump his own he undermines any meaningful understanding of practicing one’s religious beliefs. The Odgaards’s religious beliefs do not trump Mr. Stafford’s. Rather, as a society that recognizes free exercise of religion, the society should act to protect the Odgaards from having to do anything that would violate those beliefs.

The Odgaards did not infringe upon Mr. Stafford’s beliefs. Nothing in denying their request to have their wedding in the chapel denied their right to practice their beliefs. In fact, he and his partner were able to find someone to marry them whose views matched their own more closely. Mr. Stafford’s argument is actually that his religious beliefs should have trumped the Odgaards, which is in effect a denial of any meaningful definition of religious freedom. With the lawsuit that followed, the Odgaards religious expression was infringed upon by Mr. Stafford and the government.

In the end, the question is whether or not America will actually allow itself to continue being a free and pluralistic society. Will Americans be willing to recognize that in cases of disagreement we cannot force another to violate their own beliefs? Or will we continue using government coercion as a blunt instrument to quell dissent? Those who opt for the latter must recognize that they not only undermine others’ right to believe freely, but they also undermine their own.

American society continues running toward tyrannical oppression.  We should once again embrace our founding ideals, recognizing “certain inalienable rights.”

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