Nearly 225 years after the ratification of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the cause of conscience protected by the principles of “no establishment” and “free exercise” may be losing support in the minds and hearts of the American people.
Appeals by religious individuals and groups for exemption from government laws and regulations that substantially burden religious practice are increasingly unpopular and controversial. So much so that many in the media have taken to using scare quotes, transforming religious freedom into “religious freedom.”
Now the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights appears to be recommending that we make it official: Our first freedom is first no more. According to a commission report released Sept. 7, “civil rights protections ensuring nondiscrimination, as embodied in the Constitution, laws, and policies, are of preeminent importance in American jurisprudence.”
If we accept this assertion, it means that conflicts between religious freedom and nondiscrimination principles are resolved by denying accommodation for religious conscience — except perhaps in very rare and narrow circumstances.
According to the findings of the commission:This represents a significant advance for a relatively new class of folks to receive the full support and protection of civil rights and it also departs from the tradition of the past in which religious exemption was considered at least an equal, if not primary right. What this does is marginalize all those religious institutions and churches who object on religious grounds to homosexuality or to the transgendered and gives justification for the loss of the rights of these organizations and those individuals who belong to them. While this is certainly predictable, what is surprising is how quickly the umbrella of civil rights have come to cover the whole plethora of gender identities and, in particular, the idea that religious objections lack substance or merit for consideration in dealing with the rights of the GLBTQ community. The squeeze is on and has been on for a while as churches are increasingly pushed to the sideline and the freedom of religion demoted in importance. In short, there is no end in sight for the manufactured rights not envisioned by the framers of the constitution and no limit to what may trump the freedom of religion all in the name of progress.
“Religious exemptions to the protections of civil rights based upon classifications such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity, when they are permissible, significantly infringe upon those civil rights.”
The findings and recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights — an independent, bipartisan, fact-finding federal agency — carry weight with government officials responsible for national civil rights policy and enforcement.