Religious Freedom has been one of the “untouchables” in American thinking for our almost three century existence as a nation. Because of this revered status, Americans are prone to hear the words “it will violate my religious freedom” and feel sympathy and anger for those whose “freedom” is being impacted in a negative way. Thus, when organizations such as the National Organization for Marriage or the Catholic Conference start caterwauling that their religious freedom is being violated by allowing same-sex couples to marry, people listen up. Also, as I reported yesterday, parents are increasingly feeling that their religious freedom is being violated by school systems around the world who teach that gays and lesbians are normal and should be welcomed into mainstream society with open arms. But how far should the concept of “religious freedom” go in today’s society, and it is a carte blanch for any opposition to anything?
Just to give a little background on what informs my thinking here…I am a huge fan of John Stuart Mill – the great 19th century Utilitarian philosopher. In fact, because I reject the notion of governmental enforcement of religious doctrines, I feel that Utilitarianism is the best secular alternative. In essence, Mill believed that my freedom and liberty to do what I wish only goes so far; that this freedom stops when the freedom of others is threatened, or when others are harmed by your exercise of freedom. Though Utilitarianism and this philosophy of Freedom/Harm does have its flaws, I feel that it is an acceptable method of dealing with the concept of religious freedom in a pluralistic society. There are three main areas in regards to LGBT people and religious freedom that has caused the most controversy over the years: Parental opposition to children learning about homosexuality, state-funded agencies given exemptions in serving LGBT individuals because of religious reasons, and the more philosophical concept of societies condoning same-sex relationships. The first part I will deal with in this post, and the second and third I will deal with in the next few days.
First, parental opposition to children learning about homosexuality and LGBT peoples contributions to society. As reported yesterday, religious parents claim that their religious freedoms are being violated because the school is teaching a reality that is at odds with their religious beliefs. They view homosexuality as a sin; and thus their children should not be forced to learn that it is natural and normal. This issue has always been a sticky one for me, for I do understand where the parents are coming from; because the State is in essence telling their children that the views that their parents hold are backward and bigoted. But what these parents don’t realize, is that by telling the State that they should not teach about LGBT people or issues, they are in fact telling LGBT families and individuals that their views (and existance) are wrong and immoral. So therefore, which one should win?
This controversy can be quelled if we have a discussion on classes of individuals whose characteristics are “immutable”, such as race and gender. Now I recognize that many on the Right will argue that sexual orientation is not “immutable” and can be changed, something that is difficult to do with race and gender. Though most scientific organizations have dispelled this myth that the religious right attempts to pan, the Supreme Court of Canada (for those who object to me using a foreign Court, read Alexander Hamilton’s approval of this practice in Federalist 82), addressed this issue in the famous Egan v. Canada decision where Justice La Forest wrote,
I have no difficulty accepting the appellants' contention that whether or not sexual orientation is based on biological or physiological factors, which may be a matter of some controversy, it is a deeply personal characteristic that is either unchangeable or changeable only at unacceptable personal costs, and so falls within the ambit of s. 15 protection as being analogous to the enumerated grounds
What was Justice La Forest saying here? In this decision, the SCC decided that sexual orientation is just as immutable as race and gender because it is “either unchangeable or changeable only at unacceptable persona costs”. What Justice La Forest was saying is that it is not acceptable for the Government to ask someone to change something so personal and such a part of their very being in order to gain rights or acceptance by society.
So how does this relate to the issue of teaching LGBT issues and sexuality in school and the freedom of religion? Above, I asked whether sexual orientation or religion freedom should be preferred in school systems. I think the above quote from Justice La Forest shows where I stand. The belief that homosexuality is wrong and must not be taught should fall to the wayside when it comes to a trait that the government has no right to ask you to change – even if such change is possible. By teaching respect and acceptance for LGBT people, the government is not asking individuals to change their religious beliefs, but is instead asking them to respect others and recognize that such people exist. This is an acceptable balancing of rights, for neither freedom is necessarily harmed in its exercise. On the other hand, religious groups and organizations want to see LGBT peoples existence not even mentioned, directly causing both societal and psychological harm to those individuals who both identify as LGBT and who exist in such families. By refusing to even acknowledge their presence, schools that adopt the policies of “Pro-Family” organizations like Focus On The Family are sending the message that LGBT families and people are inferior to their “normal” heterosexual counterparts. Thus, in the end, the lack of true harm to those advocating on the religious freedom side, should give way to the real harm that exists in ignoring and treating LGBT families as inferior.