I take serious issue with the fact that Indiana’s recent religious freedom protection law theoretically allows businesses to deny services to people based on their sexuality. But the law did raise a question fundamental to the nature of our country: should the law protect deeply held religious beliefs? I do not believe in using religion as an excuse to discriminate, but I do believe that everyone has a fundamental right to have his or her beliefs protected. In the Federalist No. 10, James Madison argued that the United States would be free from the danger of a tyranny of the majority because there were so many competing interests that no single entity could ever gain enough power to oppress the rest. Diversity is at the heart of the American system, and while it causes a whole host of problems, it is also one of our greatest strengths.
Refusing to recognize religious belief as a valid reason for doing something threatens our ability to live together in a civil society. Should secular bosses refuse to give Jewish employees time off for Rosh Hashanah or fire Muslim employees for practicing salat? Does a majority get to decide that the beliefs of a minority are invalid? While the secular boss might not appreciate the potential effects of salat on his employee’s productivity, he should not have the backing of society in asserting that his business is more important than his employees’ religious beliefs.
Refusing to acknowledge the validity of religious beliefs also unfairly punishes people for the circumstances of their birth. Excluding people who switch from one denomination of Protestantism to another, 72 percent of Americans keep the religious beliefs with which they were raised.
While religion is very much a personal choice, it is also shaped by a person’s life experience. Do we punish people for having good experiences with the faith they grew up with and choosing to keep it and pass it along to their children in adulthood? When asked why they have kept religion as a part of their lives, most people respond that they believe it imparts good values and a sense of community. Our society benefits from these effects, as countless charities are run entirely or in part by religious organizations.
The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that a Native American man—who had been fired for failing a drug test for peyote—had not been deprived of his right of free exercise of religion. There is clearly a fine line in this debate. There are some religious requirements that would be harmful to society if they were widely permitted.
I think we need an updated definition of what exact religiously-inspired behaviors are unacceptable. Given the current trend toward permitting the use of certain drugs that are deemed to be relatively harmless or not addictive, it is hard to imagine that the Supreme Court today would find that an anti-drug law outweighs a citizen’s right to free exercise of religion.
Religion makes people do some crazy things, but the world we live in would be worse without it. People should be allowed to act in ways consistent with their deeply held beliefs as long as doing so does not involve infringing on the rights of other citizens.