Friday, Aug 17, 2018
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Church and state

In Arizona and Ohio, lawmakers try to undermine a bedrock principle that protects everyone’s freedoms

Whether a measure approved by Arizona lawmakers that would, in effect, legalize discrimination against gay people is constitutional, it is bad business and an affront to the bedrock principle of separation of church and state. So too is a divisive bill before the Ohio House — which has been shelved for now — that could also impose private religious values on the public.

In Arizona, the proposed legislation aims to protect business owners who refuse service to same-sex couples, and others, if the owners believe that serving a person would violate the principles and practices of their religion.

Bolstering businesses that refuse service to gay people on religious grounds is bad public policy. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer properly vetoed the legislation on Wednesday.

Personal discrimination, however odious, is generally a constitutional right. Churches have every right not to conduct same-sex marriages or other activities that violate their faith.

In broader matters of public accommodation, however, those rights don’t exist. During the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, courts ruled that private diners could not refuse to serve African-Americans, whether or not doing so violated their personal beliefs.

Moreover, it’s simply wrong to use religion to codify discrimination. Few Americans want to live in a society where their states can promulgate bias and segregation under the banner of religious liberty. What if McDonald’s decided not to serve single mothers?

Some of the loudest protests against the Arizona bill have come from business people. They understand that it will brand Arizona, which is campaigning to attract high-tech companies, as a state of intolerance and even bigotry — a label that will undermine business and economic development.

Several companies have said they will not expand in Arizona or will consider leaving the state if the legislation takes effect. Young, talented workers — the so-called creative class — generally value openness and diversity. So do the high-tech companies that employ them.

In Ohio, a bill incongruously labeled the Religious Freedom Restoration Act could also empower people to impose their religious beliefs on others. The broadly worded bill generally prohibits state action from burdening a person’s right to the exercise of religion, except for a “compelling governmental interest.”

That’s a standard — at least potentially — too strict for courts to protect the rights of an individual from infringement by someone else’s religious beliefs. More than 15 states have similar laws, but Ohio’s plan arguably would be the most extreme in the nation.

Ohio lawmakers should reject this bill, as the bill’s two original chief sponsors, state Rep. Tim Derickson (R., Oxford) and Rep. Bill Patmon (D., Cleveland), have done. 

Critics say it could give people authority to, among other things, ignore local ordinances and employment rules, challenge local anti-discrimination laws, and compel public schools to hang religious portraits or modify their curricula to suit an individual’s religious beliefs. On Wednesday, lawmakers indefinitely postponed consideration of the bill.

Ohioans should be grateful that the right to religious freedom is firmly embedded in the U.S. and state constitutions. But state lawmakers — if not the courts — must determine when the professed protection of religious liberty becomes a means to impose private views on other people, thereby undermining their freedom and civil rights.

Unfortunately, in Arizona and Ohio, some politicians are trying to do just that.

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