The phrase “sincerely held religious beliefs” sounds not only harmless but positively admirable. Stitched into state laws, however, the words can have an impact ranging from inconvenient to destructive of every person’s liberty.
That’s why House Bill 2481 should be allowed to die quietly as the Kansas legislature enters the hectic closing days of the 2018 regular session.
“Sincerely held religious beliefs” is a phrase heard often in recent years in dozens of state capitols as earnest but misguided lawmakers try to write it into legislation. It’s designed to exempt certain people from having to do things that the law requires of everyone else but that violate tenants of those persons’ religion. For example, HB 2481 would allow child placement agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples if the agencies’ religious beliefs define marriage as a joining of one man and one woman.
Sounds reasonable and harmless until one recognizes that in the eyes of the law same-sex marriages are just as legal as traditional ones. Then invoking the phrase becomes state-recognized, tax-funded invidious discrimination against gay and lesbian individuals and couples seeking to adopt or act as foster parents.
The use of the phrase three times in HR 2481 doesn’t mean same-sex couples could never adopt or care for children. Many child placement organizations are not religion-based, so the law’s immediate impact would be limited because gay couples can use alternative placement services. But “legalized” discrimination is still discrimination, no matter its scale.
Worse, passing HR 2481 would ease the way for other uses of the phrase as a handy rubber-stamp exemption from legal obligations. It regularly appears in all sorts of “model” legislation backed by national religious lobbying groups.
Supporters of such legislation argue that it protects the religious liberty of all people, but the best way to do that is for government to stay out of religion altogether. When laws elevate one specific religious belief over all others, that’s precisely the “establishment of religion” that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, for good and historic reasons, bars.
What judge, what government official, what jury of citizens should decide the meaning of so vague a phrase? How to measure “sincerely,” how to define “religious,” how to prove “belief?” Some groups claim white supremacy as a “sincerely held religious belief” and quote from scripture to justify it. Jihadists claim their religion requires them to kill non-believers, certainly a vivid demonstration of a “sincerely held religious belief” though not one most people share.
As a thought experiment, leave out the adjective “religious.” Most of us have “sincerely held beliefs” about many things; for instance, some believe strongly that tax incentives should not be used by cities and states to lure businesses. But those incentives are public policy established by statute and those who strongly oppose them cannot expect to be exempted from paying their share of those taxes. It’s a requirement of all citizens.
Does merely reinserting the word “religious” make empowering certain people to ignore laws any more acceptable? And doesn’t reinserting “religious” slam the whole idea against the stone wall of the First Amendment’s establishment clause?
Legitimizing “sincerely held religious belief” as a legal concept, even within the limited scope of HR 2481, would blur the constitutional line separating the spiritual from the temporal and endanger all believers.
Davis Merritt, Wichita journalist and author, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.