Monday, August 6, 2018

On religious liberty vs. workplace discrimination laws

Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a "Religious Liberty Task Force" It will enforce a 2017 DOJ memo that ordered federal agencies to take the broadest possible interpretation of "religious liberty" when enforcing federal laws, including Title VII and other anti-discrimination laws.

According to Mr. Sessions, the task force as a necessary to "confront and defeat" secularism, "a dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom."

I had an entire rebuttal planned in my brain, discussing the important of separating religion from government, protecting all from workplace discrimination, while recognizing that sometimes those protections also include the right to practice one's religion.

Then I read this piece by EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum — "What I Really Believe About Religious Liberty and LGBT Rights." She said it so much better than I could, so why reinvent the wheel. While she focuses on LGBT rights, her point is easily expandable to any discrimination.

Respecting religious organizations and people, and respecting LGBT organizations and people (including religious LGBT organizations and people) will result in different answers in different circumstances, and the law should reflect that. When dealing with religious organizations, the government should work to ensure that such organizations can thrive and flourish even if they hold and teach views that others may find offensive. When dealing with individuals, the government should respect a statement by a religious person that complying with a non-discrimination law or some other law will place a burden on that person’s religious beliefs, unless there is a good reason to believe that statement is false. If there is a way to accommodate the person and still achieve the compelling purpose of the law, the government should do that. If there is no way to accommodate the person, and still ensure that the compelling purpose of the law is achieved, then the accommodation should not be made. That is what nuance means.

If one believes there is only a “win-lose” battle, then everyone must be painted as a radical advocate of one side or another. But that is not a constructive way forward. What we need instead is to acknowledge the full and complex reality of those who are different from us and then find the generosity of spirit to reach across divides and come together in thoughtful and respectful dialogue. That is what our country needs and deserves.

Thank you, Chai, for advocating for a reaonable middle ground. Sadly, our country is mired in a win-at-all-costs, damn-the-other-side mentality. Until we can begin to recognize that a belief in one's own position does not create an enemy out of anyone who thinks differently is the enemy, our country will remain fractured.

* Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash