Recently, in an impromptu interview, Gary Johnson expressed some deep reservations about the idea of “religious freedom.” He essentially argued that it could lead to a slippery slope, in which religious individuals justify all sorts of crimes using their religious conscience. He said:
I mean under the guise of religious freedom, anybody can do anything. Back to Mormonism. Why shouldn’t somebody be able to shoot somebody else because their freedom of religion says that God has spoken to them and that they can shoot somebody dead.”
Now, this comment was admittedly incomplete. We’re not getting the full picture, since he’s referring to something previously addressed in the conversation, but wasn’t included in the interview transcript. So some people reached out and asked for clarification. Johnson responded:
My point, made with an unfortunate example, is that religion has been used too many times to justify discrimination, persecution and, yes, violence. Acts of violence and aggression can not be excused by religion and all people must be held accountable for their own actions.
Here’s my issue. No one (credible) is advocating for an unfettered ability to justify any crime under the auspices of relgious conscience. In short, nobody who is concerned about the rights of wedding vendors, doctors, and religious schools is asking for the ability to murder people with impunity.
His example may have been unfortunate, but he has only doubled down on his strawman: he believes that if you enact accommodations for those of religious conscience, you risk a slippery slope where you must accommodate ANY crime undertaken in the name of religion. And this simply is not true. It is wholly, unequivacably false.
Johnson’s perspective ignores hundreds of years of actual jurisprudence surrounding religious freedom. Since the founding of our nation, it has been recognized by courts that religious freedom is bounded by laws that protect public health and safety, or any other “compelling state interest.” Never has the Supreme Court — even under the strongest and broadest readings of the First Amendment — permitted people to engage in criminal behavior with impunity merely because their motives were religious.
There is no slippery slope here. No law passed by a legislature in the modern U.S. to protect limited religious freedoms of wedding vendors, pharmacists, pro-life doctors, or church universities is going to give ANYONE legal pretext to murder, plunder, or steal in the name of religion, or anything like it. Nobody (credible) in the debate even wants such a pretext. To imply otherwise is not merely a straw man of the religious freedom movement, but a overtly hostile reading of their intentions and proposals.
This sloppy slippery slope argument cuts both ways. To illustrate what I mean, let me use the exact same approach on Johnson’s argument: Non-discrimination laws have been used justify discrimination, persecution and, yes, violence. Businesses have been shuttered on the auspices of such laws. Where does it end? Can private groups exclude non-members? Can Mormons even expect to be able to exclude non-Mormons from their temples, under a full non-discrimination regime? Will religions be dismantled and their leaders jailed for discriminating against non-members?
Johnson might well reply, “No, no one is even asking for non-discrimination laws to be applied in such a dramatic fashion. It’s wrong to assume that we’d ever take things that far. Courts have long acknowledged at least some First Amendment limits to non-discrimination laws (such as the power of churches to maintain membership standards). Stop straw-manning my position that way.”
Well, Johnson, then stop straw-manning those who advocate for religious freedom in the same way. Just as you aren’t seeking to close down churches for discrimination, we aren’t seeking the power to commit crime and violence with impunity. On both sides, our respective perspectives are assumed to be bound by common sense, longstanding jurisprudence, and Constitutional law.
Religious freedom is bounded, and everyone already knows that. If there is a compelling state interest in preventing murder (and there certainly is), then religious freedom stops there. If there is a compelling state interest in prevention violence of any kind (and there certainly is), then religious freedom stops there. And finally, if there is a compelling state interest in preventing discrimination of any kind (debatable in at least some cases, surely), then religious freedom stops there.
We don’t disagree with that. We just disagree that all forms of discrimination are the same, and that ending all forms of discrimination rises to the level of a compelling state interest. A Jewish baker does no great societal harm by declining to paste a swastika to a cake. A wedding planner does no great societal harm by being selective of the events she chooses to manage, for whatever reasons she chooses.
Perhaps there is greater societal harm if some marginalized groups can’t find places to eat or sleep — so preventing some forms (or even many forms) of discrimination might indeed rise to the level of a compelling state interest, depending on your view. But surely not all of them do. Johnson himself would recognize this, as I’m sure even he supports Mormons’ right to exclude non-Mormons from their sacred temples. That’s discrimination, after all. So he draws the line somewhere. We just disagree on precisely where to draw that line.
When asked if he intended to end discrimination in all cases, Johnson said, “”Yes, yes, in all cases. Yes.” But we all know he doesn’t really mean that. He assumes that we all already know that he’s not going to force Churches not to discriminate, and that this statement changes nothing in that regards. These lines are so obvious to him, so thoroughly assumed from the outset, he doesn’t even feel he doesn’t have to state them.
And if Johnson can have such “assumed” lines, why can’t we? Why are we forced to state outright that no, murdering people crosses the line, and we’re not going to make that legal? Why can’t we just assume that everyone already knows we aren’t trying to legalize violence in the name of religion? If Johnson can simply assume as a given that non-discrimination laws will be limited and bounded by established First Amendment protections for churches, then why doesn’t he allow us the same privilege with regards to religious accommodations (with respect to violence and other societal ills)?
My plea to Gary Johnson (someone send this to him): Gary Johnson, you can do better than this. If you want to court the millions of social conservatives who are hurting from Trump’s presidential candidacy, you need to get your head on straight on this issue. No, we’re not asking for a license to discriminate in all cases. We’re simply asking for specific accommodations for those of conscience to decline to participate in what they consider to be moral evils, in some reasonable circumstances.
Do you think a doctor should be forced to perform an abortion? I’m giving you a benefit of a doubt, and assume you don’t (because if you do, then we have much bigger issues). So then why should a wedding photographer be forced to use her arts and talents to memorialize a wedding she finds morally objectionable? It’s a legitimate question. Please answer it without the bogus claim that allowing such accommodations could lead to legalizing violence in the name of religion.
Just as you can draw strong, implicit lines that bound your policy preferences, so can we. Religious freedom has always been bounded by laws that protect health and safety. Nobody wants to change that. We just don’t see it as a threat to public health and safety that someone can’t coerce everyone of every faith use their arts and talents to memorialize their same-sex wedding.
You claim, “My crystal ball is that you are going to get discriminated against by somebody because it’s against their religion.” Maybe that’s true. And guess what? That’s OK. But with the limited accommodations we are describing, we don’t expect some dystopic world where anyone gets denied services on a regular basis.
Because that assumes very negative things about your fellow Americans, most of whom — even the most deeply religious — have no problem feeding, clothing, housing, or otherwise serving gay people, for example. Some of us just don’t want to participate in same-sex weddings (and yes, you can build these distinctions into law). And that’s OK, because there’s plenty of other people who will. Surely that’s not a dystopia, is it?
And if you do see that as a dystopia, then you’ve likely lost the vote and confidence of your Christian neighbors. And for surprisingly un-libertarian and surprisingly authoritarian reasons.