Protesting a Fake 'Religious Liberty' Bill

April 01, 2016

I joined a rally at the Missouri Capitol yesterday to oppose SJR 39. Proponents call it a "religious liberty," but that's like a months-long April Fool's joke. It's actually an anti-gay bill masquerading as "religious liberty legislation. The bill would ask voters to approve a state constitutional amendment allowing businesses to invoke religious beliefs to deny services related to a same-sex "wedding or marriage or a closely preceding or ensuing reception."

Since the legislation already passed in the Senate, those of us at the rally gathered outside for a few remarks - including from a pastor and a rabbi - and then went inside to deliver over 4,200 petitions (including one from me) to two key House leaders. I showed up in the a couple of news videos of the event (KMBC and KOLR).

There are multiple problems with the proposed SJR 39. Missouri already has strong religious liberty protections. In addition, to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Missouri Constitution includes a long, detailed section on religious freedom. The state also passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (based on the federal model) in 2003 that further protects the religious liberty rights of people in the Show Me State.

Another problem with the new bill is it's poorly written. True religious liberty must be for all, and therefore cannot pick which beliefs are valid. If the crafters SJR 39 truly believe businesses should be allowed to refuse service for a wedding they disagree with on religious grounds, then the legislation should allow any such religious exemption. What if a florist holds a religious objection to a divorced person remarrying? What if a baker holds a religious objection to an interfaith couple marrying? What if a photographer holds a religious objection to an interracial couple marrying? Why should proponents of same-sex marriage being given freedom to object, but not those with religious objections to other marriages? Thus, it quickly becomes obvious this bill is actually about opposing same-sex marriage rather than supporting religious liberty.

Religious liberty legislation must treat all beliefs fairly. It cannot pick just one belief to receive extra or less rights. To allow the state to choose winners and losers in the realm of religious beliefs is to yield the government too much power. SJR 39 ironically hurts the cause of religious liberty by ceding to the state the ability to favor one religious belief on marriage.

This fake "religious liberty" bill also hurts the cause of religious liberty by making it seem this important principle is synonymous with being anti-gay. In fact, analysis of presidential campaign rhetoric shows many Republican politicians have replaced references to "gay marriage" with talk of "religious liberty." They're stealing the language of an important concept to try and push their unpopular legislation. That's how presidential candidates like Texas Senator Ted Cruz can talk about "religious liberty" despite appalling anti-Muslim rhetoric that proves he doesn't actually believe in religious liberty for all. Perhaps it's not surprising that Don Hinkle, a leading figure behind SJR 39, endorsed Cruz.

I refuse to surrender the phrase "religious liberty" to those who don't actually believe in it. That's why when I attended the rally yesterday, I wore my Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty shirt that declares, "Religious Liberty For All." As the petition delivered to Missouri House leaders explains, "Religious freedom is a fundamental Missouri value. But it's clearly protected in both our state and federal constitution - and it's not under threat." Amen!