By Alex Carros
Last February, the State Senate of Georgia passed the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This bill was designed to allow discrimination, specifically against same-sex marriage, by religious leaders and private institutions. No one seriously contests the purpose of this law; it very explicitly states that it will allow for LGBT discrimination on religious grounds. So, how could anyone, particularly an atheist, actually support such legislation? Well, as much as I think religious opinions are silly, the government must allow people to hold them. Individuals and private businesses have guaranteed First Amendment rights, including the right to be a close-minded bigot. So, while these values are woefully backwards and idiotic, we cannot simply force people to capitulate to our subjective ethical values by threat of force or incarceration. To do so would make us no better than the clergy.
As an atheist I think all religions are pretty ridiculous, and I mean all of them: Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, etc. To me personally, they are all primitive folk tales, ancient vestiges we are better off leaving behind us. Although part of me wishes it, I cannot, in good conscience, simply force people to abandon their faiths as I did. The principles of freedom and choice, without coercion or force, are more important to me. Contrary to the popular, and quite frankly evil, phrase: the ends do not justify the means. Although I wish for a world free of religion and spirituality, this has to be accomplished with reason and understanding, not coercion. For this reason, religious values, no matter how stupid they may seem to the rest of us, must be allowed to exist so long as they do not impede on the rights of others.
You may therefore ask the following: how does this bill, which will explicitly allow for discrimination, not trample on the civil liberties of LGBT individuals? Well, I must preface my response proper by stating that I, once again, do not advocate the action itself. I believe, like many of you, that discrimination is idiotic and, at times, malicious. However, private institutions have every right to discriminate. In spite of the many moral and ethical objections, individuals and private businesses must be allowed to deny services or goods from anyone for any reason. It is, after all, their business. No one is forcing the potential customer to go there, and no one is preventing him/her from going someplace else. In the case of gay men and lesbian women, no one is forcing them to get married at a certain church, or to buy a cake from a particular baker. If they encounter any unfortunate bigotry, then they have every right to go someplace more accommodating, and give that place their money. This may be taxing and unfair, yes, but let us look at the alternative.
Let’s say that the polar opposite of this law were to come into effect: the state government has now mandated that any and all private businesses must cater to homosexual couples. Now, this legislation probably has the best intentions: prejudice is bad, and this law makes prejudice illegal. However, let us examine the implications of such a measure. The government, when all is said and done, is a giant incarceration/shooting people machine. Whenever a new law is passed, the implication is that breaking this law results in imprisonment at gunpoint. Thus, this new law would force religious individuals, such as priests and rabbis, to officiate LGBT weddings. If they refuse, they are taken to court in order to compel them otherwise. If they resist any further, they are thrown in prison with guns pressed to their backs. Now, this may seem like an outlandish scenario, but this is already happening across the country.
Last year in Oregon, Melissa and Aaron Klein politely cited their religious beliefs when they refused to cater a lesbian wedding. They even pointed out several competitors who would be happy to serve the couple. However, this was not enough. Laurel and Rachel Bowman-Cryer, the brides-to-be, sued them for $135,000 in personal damages, and won. And this is not the only example. Other bakeries in Colorado and Denver have also been forced, under threat of imprisonment or economic ruin, to bake wedding cakes for gay weddings. So, ask yourself the following: do you want a priest or baker to go to prison simply for not servicing a gay/lesbian marriage? If the answer is yes, then what does this accomplish? Do you think that compelling tolerance will end discrimination? Will this foster less, or more, prejudice and hostility?
As an atheist, it can be rather hard for me to support religious bigotry. Like most of you, I would love to live in a world without religious intolerance and hatred, however, this cannot be accomplished with force. People must learn and understand peace and tolerance in order for it to have a truly lasting impact. It is for this reason that religious freedom, including the freedom to discriminate, must be upheld. Though the process of ending ignorance and contempt will be slow and at times frustrating, it will be worth it in the end. We must, therefore, permit religious institutions and individuals to practice their admittedly backwards beliefs within the confines of their own property.