Skip to main content

Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Liberty at risk

A timely debate brings a sobering conclusion

Liberty at risk

(Krieg Barrie)

Whenever, in recent times, the conversation among us evangelicals has turned to the so-called LGBTQ community, two themes surface frequently.

“Can you believe,” folks ask repeatedly, “how fast all this has happened?”

And second: “So where is the LGBTQ movement moving next? I can’t see any more taboos for them to cross.”

Both are thoughtful and legitimate questions. But too much focus on the past may have a tendency to obscure what lies ahead. We are what we are; we are what we have become—as repugnant as that reality might be. What are we going to do about it?

All that’s why I was especially intrigued with a major editorial feature in the July 27 Wall Street Journal highlighting the likely impact of LGBTQ advances on future national policies. The question WSJ editors boldly pose is whether those advances haven’t just put the homosexual community into the American mainstream, but may have put American religious liberty for others in peril.

Yes indeed, that peril is real, says David French, a senior writer for National Review and a columnist for Time. But it’s not because there may be still other groups out there seeking to be recognized as legitimate components of society. It’s more because some of those newly enfranchised components of society are so determined now to make life tough for those who have opposed them. Specifically, the pattern is to remove tax-exempt status from their opponents. Any school, orphanage, publication, student group—or even a church—might lose its tax-exempt status if it doesn’t endorse full homosexual rights. Such entities might be left free to operate with their own moral preferences—but they’ll no longer enjoy the benefits of tax exemption.

We are what we are; we are what we have become—as repugnant as that reality might be. What are we going to do about it?

French argues that the Constitution’s early placement of the Bill of Rights, including the religious liberty clause, is very deliberate—and that fussing with the tax code on that front is dangerous business. “Every other American law —whether a federal statute, state constitutional provision, state law or university regulation—is subordinate to and subject to review under the Bill of Rights.”

That doesn’t mean every constitutional right is absolute. It is time, French asserts, to be careful.

Altogether unlikely and unnecessary, says Marci Hamilton in her side of the WSJ debate. She is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and CEO of Child USA. And she says bluntly, “Too much harm is done in the name of religious liberty.” She cites cases like the Amish communities where she says children’s education is badly damaged by their parents’ claim of religious liberty; or like the North American Indians who sought the “religious right” to use nerve damaging drugs in their tribal worship services.

But Hamilton weakens her case by citing small and relatively impotent groups. Yes, their rights too are important—and they may carry some limited precedent. But no one should pretend the cases are similar to some bold effort to negate the tax advantages of thousands of organizations and millions of citizens—just because some folks choose not to participate in practices they consider to be out-of-bounds.

Hamilton tries to calm the fears of those who buy French’s warnings. But she spends a little too much space arguing that even if those warnings come true, things won’t be so bad. She scoffs at the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, passed easily back then by Congress and signed by Bill Clinton, but later neutered by the Supreme Court. And perhaps she tells you more than you want to know just by reading the title of her book, God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty.

All of which, I think, validates French’s arguments—and suggests we ought to listen to his warning: “Religious Americans are the canary in the coal mine of the First Amendment; they are right to think their freedom is under fire.”

No cause for panic. Just time, if The Wall Street Journal is concerned about religious liberty, for maybe the rest of us to be a bit more thoughtful.