WASHINGTON — Social and religious conservatives should have been the first to oppose the Arizona Legislature’s effort to allow businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples on religious grounds.
Partisans of the religious right apparently don’t feel this way, but here’s why they should: Pushing “conscience exemptions” beyond reasonable limits threatens a long-standing American habit of having government go out of its way to accommodate the commitments of religious people.
Conscience should not be used as a battering ram to undermine any adjustment in the law that some group doesn’t like. Using conscience exemptions to facilitate backdoor resistance to social change takes something precious and turns it into a cheap political tactic.
That’s why conservatives should be grateful that Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the anti-gay bill.
Those who cherish religious faith ought to be heartsick that it is so often invoked not to advance compassion and understanding but rather to justify discrimination and even bigotry. This is doing serious harm to our religious traditions, particularly among the young.
The millennials are more detached from organized religion than any earlier cohort of young Americans since polling began: Roughly one-third reject formal religious affiliation. Many scholars — notably Robert Putnam and David Campbell, whose American Grace is the definitive book on the United States’ religious landscape — attribute this to the hyper-politicization of faith on the right.
To young adults, Campbell and Putnam wrote in a 2012 article in Foreign Affairs, “‘religion’ means ‘Republican,’ ‘intolerant,’ and ‘homophobic.’ Since those traits do not represent their views, they do not see themselves — or wish to be seen by their peers — as religious.”
Congratulations to the Arizona Legislature for doing such an excellent job at de-evangelization.
But the promiscuous resort to conscience exemptions is a more immediate danger to religious groups. Religious accommodations in our laws reflect our devotion to liberty and pluralism. They involve an ongoing effort to balance robust protections for faith groups on the one hand with the need for laws of general application on the other. Destroying the equilibrium would undercut the search for accommodation.
For both pragmatic and principled reasons, supporters of marriage equality have already gone out of their way to respect the objections of many faiths to blessing homosexual unions.
In November 2012, Maryland’s voters approved gay marriage by a majority of 52 percent to 48 percent. Key to this victory (and to victories elsewhere) was the willingness of marriage equality’s supporters to acknowledge the freedom of religious institutions to run their own affairs.