It's settled, then: Christian conservatives use religion as a justification for their discriminatory behavior, and Americans will only enjoy true religious freedom when their so-called "religious liberty" claims are defeated.
That was the consensus Thursday at a panel discussion sponsored by the Center for American Progress in Washington.
"People [are] using the term 'liberty' when they really mean 'my liberty, your slavery,'" the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, said during the discussion. He made the statement while arguing that liberals' view of religious liberty springs from a true, originalist reading of the Constitution that was once universally understood. Unfortunately, he said, the American people have become "confused" about this question because of misleading claims made by the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops.
"You have the Catholic bishops advocating for 'religious freedom,' which doesn't look anything like what religious freedom is in the Constitution," Gaddy said. "Unless we do those kind of dramatic actions [such as the ACLU suing the USCCB] in order to get us back to what the foundation of religious freedom has been all the time, it's going to get worse and worse, with people using the term 'liberty' when they really mean 'my liberty, your slavery.'"
The audience received a similar narrative of religious beliefs functioning as a Trojan horse for discrimination from ACLU senior counsel Eunice Rho, who denounced attempts to pass a Religious Freedom Restoration Act in various states.
"These are very dangerous because they can allow religion to be used to harm others," Rho said.
Gaddy compared Christian florists who don't want to provide service for gay weddings to employers who posted "whites only" signs in their windows.
"I don't think we don't want to go down that road again," he said.
The low level of discourse was disappointing because the panel had plenty of opportunities for a more substantive conversation.
"It sets up a false equation of 'my religious liberty versus same-sex marriage, reproductive rights' — as if those two are inherently opposed and you've got to choose one versus the other," said Sally Steenland, director of CAP's Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. "And we, as we'll talk about later in the panel, know that's not the case."
That's a very interesting claim that happens to be at odds with the position of Chai Feldblum, whom President Obama appointed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
"There can be a conflict between religious liberty and sexual liberty, but in almost all cases the sexual liberty should win because that's the only way that the dignity of gay people can be affirmed in any realistic manner," Feldblum said in 2006.
Unfortunately, the panelists never explained why Feldblum was wrong or articulated a judicable principle that reconciled the apparent tension between the sexual liberty of gay couples wanting to marry and the religious liberty of Christian-conservative business owners who don't want to service their weddings.
Instead, the audience heard cliched comparisons between such Christians and people who oppose interracial marriages.
"We don't tolerate that type of behavior," the Human Rights Campaign's Sarah Wurbelow said, without a hint of irony. "Serving a client through a contract is not the same thing as putting your imprimatur on it, saying, 'I agree with this particular marriage.'"
NARAL deputy policy council Lissy Moskowitz made another interesting comment while discussing the Hobby Lobby lawsuit pending before the Supreme Court, in which business owners argue that they ought not be required to pay for their employees' contraception given their own religious beliefs.
"That's the concern, that if the court rules in favor of Hobby Lobby, the concern is that, well, in this context, it's birth control, but what's not to stop another boss from saying, 'Well, I don't want to cover vaccines, mental health, blood transfusions' — I mean, the list goes on and on, and it's really worrisome," Moskowitz said.
That's an interesting problem that I don't know how to resolve. Will the panel of lawyers, policy experts and religious leaders address this thorny topic? Do they even know it's thorny?
Moskowitz's comment could have been the beginning of a conversation about questions of religious liberty, state mandates, how the public interest can be at odds with or reconciled to individual consciences, and others. At CAP headquarters Thursday, it was an argument-ender.
Why have substantive discussions of constitutional law and American jurisprudence when you can denounce conservative "theocracy" to a liberal audience?
"See, I grew up in a part of the country where we really believed in religious liberty but we really enforced bondage on everyone else, and it was because we were Christians and we had the Bible," Gaddy said.
He followed that remark by saying that interpretations of the Bible "ought never threaten the federal government and the way people are ruled by law ... an interpretation of the Bible is of little consequence to the guarantee of the Constitution."
Later in the talk, Gaddy agreed with an interlocutor who asked if liberals "need to start educating, and calling out, Christians for trying to exercise 'Christian privilege.'"
"As a Christian" — a big part of Gaddy's rhetorical power seemed to derive from the fact that, as a Christian and a former Southern Baptist, he could ratify all of the CAP audience's views of the people with whom they disagreed — "I think Christians ought to start calling each other out, because I think you're exactly right," he said.
So, this religious liberty issue is a pretty simple one at the Center for American Progress: Hidebound conservative Christians — who hold positions that, Steenland admitted, were very common in American society not very long ago (an observation that ought to engender a charitable view of her opponents' positions, although popular opinion certainly doesn't mean that some position or law is necessarily right or just) — fear change, dislike people who differ from them, and use "religious liberty" to justify their discriminatory views.
"Many people have sincerely held religious beliefs that are different and are held across the spectrum and, for a florist or a bakery, nobody is trying to change what you believe or what you say, but in terms of fulfilling a contract ... you have a license, you've opened your doors to serve the public," said Steenland.
"And, to turn certain people away based on who they are, it doesn't feel like a particularly American thing to do," she concluded.
So, the discussion began with a statement of fear about the influence of Roman Catholic bishops on American constitutional debates and ended with a panel moderator dismissing certain dictates of other people's consciences as un-American.
It's almost like the Center for American Progress wants to drag society back into the 1950s.