When religious freedom imposes

Oct 25, 2017 at 11:20 am
U.S. Rep John Yarmuth at a  healthcare town hall earlier this year.
U.S. Rep John Yarmuth at a healthcare town hall earlier this year.

One of the most contentious cases on the U.S. Supreme Court’s fall docket involves a Colorado baker’s refusal to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Cases like this and gay marriage and Kentucky’s Kim Davis debacle stir the religious right’s favorite crie de coeur:

“What about our religious freedom?”

Dan Canon, a civil rights lawyer and congressional candidate in Indiana’s 9th District, has answers.

“‘Freedom’,” he said, noting that he intentionally put that word in “scare quotes,” “has been co-opted by certain groups to the disadvantage of other people, not the freedom of all. That’s a problem.”

Canon was on the legal team that won marriage equality, and helped oppose Davis. He made these remarks during a panel discussion at Sullivan University, which was organized by the Louisville chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and included state Rep. Attica Scott (D-Louisville), and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, the 3rd District Democrat.

Canon warmed up the sold-out crowd with a personal anecdote.

The father to two (freaking adorable) daughters said his 4-year-old had started asking life’s tougher questions: “Where do babies come from?” “Why is the sky blue?” “What happens after you die?”

Canon said when she asked the latter, all he could do was shrug and make a noise that vaguely resembled, “I dunno.” He’s agnostic. And his agnosticism factors into both his campaign and his practice.

“That ‘I dunno’ has always informed my view of the world,” he said. Without the promise of reward or punishment in the afterlife, as afforded by many faiths, “It’s your obligation to live your best life now.”

So what about religious freedom?

There’s a difference between religious freedom and religious imposition, he explained. Davis, for example, is free to practice her religion, but not impose those beliefs on others. Refusing to sign marriage certificates was the latter.

Canon’s team won that legal case but lost the “PR battle” because people just couldn’t see the difference between freedom and imposition. And many more just didn’t want to. Sure, same sex couples can marry in Rowan County now, but Davis is also free to spread her special brand of gay hate to Romania (of all places).

Canon said whether or not you are religious, the obligation of a lawmaker is to make the world a better place now. “Even if you believe in an omni-benevolent being, you have to believe that it would want us to take care of the world.”

Scott, the first African-American woman elected to the state legislature in 20 years, legislates with that in her heart. “As a Christian, I don’t believe my God needs to be lowered to law.”

Scott harshly criticized Bevin for turning Kentucky into a “church-state.” “Governor, please stop with the prayer groups wandering around West Louisville,” she said to appreciative applause.

Other ways the Bevin administration has weaseled Christianity into governing include supporting the Ark Park, and attacks on reproductive healthcare.

Yarmuth, who founded LEO Weekly, which is now run by his son, Aaron Yarmuth, said he grew up as a Jewish boy in Louisville’s public schools, a system that was “pre-sensitvity.” Yarmuth remembered having to figure out whether he should join in on Christmas carols at yearly pageants. Students were told then, and for many years after: “If they aren’t comfortable, they can just leave the room.”

Eventually, Yarmuth tired of leaving the room. This intrusion of religion into politics is one the reason he joined the Democrats. He said that he was a Republican until 1985, when President Reagan started relying on people such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as advisors.

He applauded corporate America for pushing back against anti-LGBTQ laws in North Carolina  and Indiana — where companies have canceled conferences, concerts and sporting events and reconsidered relocations. Kentucky is still a no-go state for California state workers because of a new law that could be used to discriminate against LBGTQ students.

“I would be offended that politicians are using Christianity as a political weapon, if I was a Christian,” said Yarmuth.

All three guests and several audience members addressed how people increasingly live in “bubbles” with other like-minded people. Yarmuth brought up how Southeast Christian Church is more than just a faith institution, but a full-on “neighborhood.”

After the event, I asked Yarmuth about these bubbles. He said that he blamed the media. “We live in a very different media world now,” he said.

As a member of the media, that answer, while probably true to a large extent, rankles. The media have become a punching bag for both sides of the aisle. I brought up that there were no dissenting voices among the event’s audience, making the forum, effectively, one of the bubbles he bemoaned. Yarmuth agreed that perhaps a dissenting voice was needed.

Should a majority of Americans get their wish to see Trump slink off into the night one way or another — his disapproval rating is 56.4 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight — and Vice President Pence ascends to power, we need to heed Canon’s very clear explainer of “religious freedom” quickly.

Pence’s record as governor of Indiana tells us that if, and when, he moves into the White House, we’ll have much more to worry about than LGBTQ people’s right to a wedding cake.