Respect for religious freedom has deep roots in American society. Many of those who came to America did so to escape religious persecution, and they brought with them a profound understanding of the importance of protecting such personal rights from oppressive rule, be it by the hand of monarchy or democratic majority. Thus why Constitutional protections for religious freedom were included in the First Amendment.
Yet many areas where religious freedom is said to be under attack are actually examples of a different sort of problem. No one should be forced to make a gay wedding cake, for instance, simply because they make their living as a baker (assuming they are their own employer). The idea that one must sell to all in order to sell to any contradicts basic Constitutional tenets, yet is an idea that has wormed its way into Constitutional doctrine thanks to the misguided idea of “public accommodations” in non-discrimination law, and long eviscerated protections for economic liberty. Focusing on the subset of cases where objections are made on the grounds of religious sensibilities misses the larger issue, which is that the freedom of association and basic liberty should allow all the right to choose with whom they do or do not engage in commercial exchange – for any reason, be it religiously motivated or not, that the individual sees fit.
But there are also ways in which religious freedoms are actually in danger of being undermined today. Under the direction of Houston’s first openly gay mayor, Annise Parker, the city last year subpoenaed sermons and other pastoral communication from local churches. They were ordered to turn over any communication relating to a contentious local non-discrimination law, as well as “all speeches and sermons related to Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality and gender identity.” She backed down after national uproar over the flagrant abuse of power, but the episode is both illuminating and disturbing.
Religious concerns from the fallout of Obergefell are also not without merit, as admitted by U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrili when he acknowledged during oral arguments that tax-exempt status “is going to be an issue” with the Court’s potential (and now real) ruling that the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage (rightly) violates Constitutional protections. The ACLU has also decided that it’s no longer on board with the whole religious freedom thing now that Christians might be the ones in need of legal protections. And given the proven vindictiveness of today’s cultural winners, more attacks ought to be expected.
Which is all the more reason why it’s a shame that some Republicans, along with the Texas Attorney General, are insisting that county clerks in Texas or elsewhere ought to be able to be able to “opt out” of issuing same-sex marriage licenses if they have religious objections. This is a misapplication of religious liberty.
Look, we’re not talking about clergy or non-state wedding officiators here, who like bakers ought to be able to decide whether they wish to take part in a same-sex wedding or not. These are people whose job it is to process paperwork and issue wedding licenses. County Clerks are municipal employees, be they elected or appointed, and therefore agents of the state. And agents of the state don’t get to dictate actions of the state based on personal whims. If they won’t or can’t do the job required of them and fulfill their duties as public servants then they ought to resign.
Individuals have every right to not work at a place that requires issuing same-sex marriage licenses, but what they don’t have is the right to insist that they not be replaced by someone who will do the entire job and not just part of it. Anyone with true convictions should understand that sometimes upholding those beliefs means making sacrifices, including not working at places that as a fundamental part of the job necessitate violating those beliefs.
There are real threats to religious freedoms, and those who might wish to meet those threats with robust Constitutional protections shouldn’t try to expand the concept to its breaking point. I’m sure it’s not easy to have to choose between honoring ones principles or performing a duty that one currently under obligation to perform, but there’s no Constitutional right to not have to make tough choices.