Equal rights statute preserves social, religious liberties
Originally posted on the Houston Chronicle blog.
In the long hours of debate over Mayor Annise Parker’s proposed Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, we have heard a great deal about the faith of Houstonians. Many have cited their religious beliefs as the reason they support the ordinance. Others have invoked religion in opposition. This plurality of opinion is a strong testament to the power of religion to shape our lives and our values.
But in framing their opposition to the ordinance in religious terms, some have argued there is a tension between two American values: equality for all and religious liberty. They claim the ordinance threatens their religious liberty as business owners because it prohibits them from discriminating against customers who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
This argument is based on a faulty premise. Under our constitutional system, religious liberty does not mean, and has never meant, that if people of faith object to a law, their personal beliefs trump other societal values.
Religious freedom is a fundamental American value, the first liberty protected in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. From our country’s founding, we have guarded the right to believe and to worship – or not – according to individual conscience without interference from the state.
The result is that religion flourishes in our society as in no other, as demonstrated by Texas’ own example. According to the Texas Almanac, Texas communities include Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Sikhs and Unitarian Universalists. Each adherent enjoys the right to participate in civic life without fear of being marginalized or excluded because of government favoritism for any one sect.
The mayor’s proposed ordinance is consistent with that robust tradition of religious liberty. In fact, the ordinance protects the free exercise of religion by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion. Under the ordinance, people cannot be fired from a job, denied an apartment or refused service at the corner store because of their religion.
Moreover, recognizing the proper limits on government’s ability to intrude on matters of faith, the ordinance excludes houses of worship and religiously affiliated institutions from adhering to the non-discrimination provisions. Churches, synagogues and mosques remain free to determine hiring practices and other internal matters according to the tenets of their respective faiths.
Which brings us to the faulty premise upon which the religious liberty objection to the ordinance is based. The ordinance prohibits discrimination broadly – on the basis of race, age, sex, disability, veterans’ status, religion and more – in an attempt to promote equality for all. For some, this step toward equality, particularly for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Houstonians, is inconsistent with a personal religious belief.
But a law that conflicts with a personal religious belief, no matter how deeply held, is not a violation of religious liberty. Nothing in our Constitution gives people of faith a special exemption from following laws meant to protect everyone. Nor could it. In a country with as many diverse religious traditions as ours, imagine what would happen if each of us could choose, according to our individual beliefs, which laws to follow and which to ignore.
The proposed Houston Equal Rights Ordinance creates no conflict between equality and religious liberty. The ordinance claims no power to compel any of us to relinquish a sincerely held religious belief, to endorse something we believe profoundly to be immoral or to offer services of which we disapprove. That is not the province of law.
The only thing that the ordinance does or could require is that, whatever our personal beliefs, in our business dealings, we don’t treat people differently for being who they are. If that requirement seems familiar, maybe it’s because so many faith traditions subscribe to the Golden Rule.
All of us should respect the competing points of view expressed as City Council debates the ordinance. But none of us should forget that the principle of equality for all is as essential to the American character as religious liberty. To our good fortune, the proposed Houston Equal Rights Ordinance preserves both.