Religious freedom, while an important part in the foundation of the United States, can be taken too far and used as an excuse for lawbreaking in forms such as discrimination or sexual misconduct. The separation of church and state is a critical concept that can’t be forgotten and is essential to a functioning democracy. We can’t let our personal religious views affect America’s secular democracy.
The Trump administration created a new division Jan. 18 in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that would protect health care workers who choose to refuse to treat patients due to the workers’ religious or moral beliefs, according to HHS. Under the HHS, this new office, called the Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom, will assure that physicians, nurses and other health care workers won’t have to take part in procedures like abortions or treat certain patients if it goes against their beliefs. The establishment of this division counteracts a policy created by the Obama administration that barred health care workers from refusing treatment to those who identified as transgender and women seeking abortions.
While everyone is entitled to hold their religious and moral beliefs, religion shouldn’t be used as a reason to refuse medical care to patients in need. By doing so, the health care worker is imposing his or her own beliefs on the patient, which in turn obstructs the patient’s freedom of religion or, at least, way of life.
Although the new office seems to be primarily aimed at health care workers who don’t wish to perform abortions, this instance isn’t the only time religious beliefs were used as an excuse for discrimination.
In 2012, Charlie Craig and David Mullins visited a bakery in Colorado to buy a wedding cake, but when they arrived, the owner of the bakery refused to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding. The couple filed a complaint against shop owner Jack Phillips to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and it was found that Phillips was, in fact, breaking Colorado law, according to CNN. However, an appeal made by Phillips took this case to the Supreme Court Dec. 5 to decide whether or not an exception should be made to this anti-discriminatory law based on religious beliefs.
There’s no excuse for discrimination of any kind. The United States was founded on the basis that all men are created equal, and while at the time this was written it wasn’t entirely true, America has since taken immense steps in the journey to equality. Discrimination against one’s race, skin color, gender, age or religious beliefs — among others — is illegal, according to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act.
So if people are given the right to their religious freedom with a guarantee they won’t be discriminated against because of it, then why are they permitted to use their religion to discriminate against others? Religious beliefs can’t be used as an excuse simply because one’s way of life is different from another’s.
Discrimination hasn’t been the only issue excused by religious beliefs. On Jan. 7, Andy Savage, a pastor from Tennessee, appeared before his congregation to make an emotional confession and apology for what he called a “sexual incident” with a 17-year-old girl that occurred in 1998, according to NPR. He tried to handle this confession in a so-called “biblical way” with the belief that God’s forgiveness is more important than any sin. In a video, the congregation was heard cheering in response to his confession, sparking online outrage.
This raised questions for the evangelical faith as evangelical women noticed the tendency of their faith’s culture to simply celebrate the confession of one’s sins without holding people accountable for their actions. Kelly Rosati, vice president for child advocacy at Focus on the Family, a conservative evangelical organization, said although the forgiveness of God is important, it doesn’t eliminate the need for further action and consequences for the “sin” that was committed.
“People are not exempted by their culture,” Rosati said in an interview with NPR. “Churches are not exempt. This is an issue that we have to grapple with.”
Faith is an important part of many people’s lives and everyone has the right to hold that faith. But when wrongdoing punishable by law comes into play, simply apologizing and receiving forgiveness from God and a congregation isn’t enough. That person must also be held accountable for the injustice they committed against another.
Religious beliefs can’t be used to excuse sexual misconduct, discrimination or any other unlawful crime. Yes, the First Amendment grants everyone in the United States the right to religious freedom, but people can’t use their religious freedom as a way to divert the law.
When a doctor refuses to treat a patient, a baker declines a request to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple or a pastor sexually assaults a young girl, religion can’t be used as a scapegoat for avoiding standard policy. The separation of church and state, a concept established hundreds of years ago, is part of the strong foundation of the American government. We can’t let our rights to freedom of religion cloud the ideas of the secular society in which we live.