The Inalienable Right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness vs. the Right to Religious Freedom by Carol P. Christ

carol p. christ photo michael bakasIn his speech announcing that he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Governor Mike Pence of Indiana did not mention the issue of the so-called “right” to refuse service to gays, lesbians, and transgendered individuals as one of the reasons this bill came to his desk. However, the idea that bakers could be “coerced” into baking cakes for gay weddings, photographers “required” to photograph them, and venue owners “forced” to provide space for them was frequently mentioned in discussions of this and similar bills. Governor Pence’s evident defensiveness during his press conference, and his repeated assertion that “this is not about discrimination” made it clear that an elephant was very much in the room.

Instead of defending the alleged “right” of religious individuals to discriminate against gay, lesbians, and transgendered individuals, Governor Pence invoked the right of employers to refuse to provide contraception to women as part of employee insurance plans, mentioning the Hobby Lobby and University of Notre Dame cases. If anyone has forgotten, in the Hobby Lobby case the Supreme Court decided that employers with a deeply held conviction that birth control is wrong do not have to offer it to their employees as required by federal law if “less restrictive” ways of providing it can be found.

Governor Pence apparently thought that openly defending the so-called “right” to discriminate against women is less controversial in his state than openly defending the so-called “right” to discriminate against lesbians, gays, and transgendered individuals. In fact, these two issues are linked in the minds of the people like Governor Pence.

The link in question is the patriarchal male-dominated family and the patriarchal (interpretation of) religion that supports it. “If God in ‘his’ heaven is a father ruling his people, then it is in the ‘nature’ of things and according to the divine plan and the nature of the universe that society be male-dominated.” –Mary Daly

A woman who can control her own body and sexuality asserts her right not to be controlled by men within the patriarchal institution of marriage. Gay, lesbian, or transgendered couples who can get married assert their right to sidestep the gender roles acted out in traditional heterosexual marriages. In relation to these rights, patriarchal religion is in no way a neutral factor.

In his defense of signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Governor Pence went out of his way to remind his audience that President Bill Clinton signed the federal version of it, Nancy Pelosi and Ted Kennedy supported it, and Barack Obama voted for a similar law in the state of Illinois before he became President. These liberal-minded individuals and others like them apparently viewed so-called religious freedom laws as insignificant concessions to religious people. They were wrong.

The Founding Fathers (irony intended) established the separation of church and state in the United States in order to protect individuals from being controlled by religion.

Like Mary Daly, the Founding Fathers did not view religion as a neutral factor in human life. Most of their ancestors had fled persecution by religious authorities. In the Colonies, new theocracies were established, with Puritan leaders dictating to their communities. The Founding Fathers put no trust in religion and religious authorities. They put their faith in reason and in the inalienable rights of [hu]man [beings]. They did not believe the state had the right to tell people how to practice religion, but they were equally–if not more concerned–to assure that no one be allowed to violate the inalienable rights of human beings in the name of religion.

The public-private distinction is relevant here. The right to practice one’s own religion is a private right. The right to equal access and equal protection under the law is a public right. One can choose not to engage in an activity or occupation that requires one to violate one’s private beliefs. But private beliefs do not entitle anyone to violate the legally protected rights of others–which include equal access to publicly offered services.

In her dissent to the Hobby Lobby decision, Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned that in upholding the right of an employer to discriminate against its employees in regard to a legally guaranteed right, the Supreme Court was opening the door to a widespread undermining of the fundamental right to equal protection under the law. I agree with Ginsburg. The Founding Fathers never intended the right to practice one’s own religion in the private sphere to overturn the inalienable right of human beings to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in public spheres.

Also see “Spouse for Life.”

Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter)–space available on the spring and fall 2015 tours.  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions; and forthcoming next year, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Photo by Michael Bakas.

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10 replies

  1. Brava! I watch the Sunday morning news shows. Gov. Pence was an “exclusive guest” on the ABC show. He was repeatedly asked by George Stephanopolous to answer yes or no, did this “religious freedom” act discriminate, and every time, he walked around the question, avoided a direct answer, repeated his talking points about Clinton, etc., etc., etc. He and the Indiana legislators obviously do not agree with Justice Ginsberg. They’ve opened that door wide for any kind of fundamental wind to blow right in.

    Are we making any progress in the 21st century??


    • I try hard to convince myself that this conservative nastiness is a sign of the chaos of transition – that it’s the last, desperate gasp of backlash from those who want to hold onto the past – a past that feels familiar and safe to them. I hope I’m right, and that we really are moving, albeit haltingly, towards a more open and accepting society.


  2. Your public/private distinction reminded me of an issue I spotted when reading the Hobby Lobby decision in connection with some posts I wrote last summer. A court decision mandating social security taxes be paid notwithstanding religious objections was curiously distinguished as not being relevant precedent. But it should have been. The issue of taxation in general is directly relevant when religious organizations attempt to drive public policy. It seems to me that if people want to believe there is a man in the sky (to borrow a phrase from the great theologian George Carlin) dictating that marriage is exclusively heterosexual and that wives must obey their husbands there is ultimately nothing that can be done about that. But the religious organizations that promote such beliefs so obviously antithetical to public policy should not enjoy the considerable benefits of tax exemption.


    • Yes Stuart when I was writing the blog I thought of conscientious objection to war (which they make very hard to prove) and also of a friend of mine who didn’t pay her taxes for years because she objected to war. In other words, it seems all religious beliefs are not equal.

      The whole question of whether any religion should get a tax exemption is another story.


  3. Thanks Carol. Also to explore life on our own spiritual ground, and to think for ourselves in the context of religion is an amazingly bright, beautiful and creative path.

    In regard to Indiana, I saw some photos online of Indiana storefronts with banners in their windows saying, WE SERVE EVERYONE. Great to see that happening!!


  4. About….
    The Founding Fathers (irony intended) established the separation of church and state in the United States in order to protect individuals from being controlled by religion.
    They established separation of Church and state to protect individuals from ….THE GOVERNMENT!



    • The Founding Fathers were interested in protecting the freedom to worship as one chooses. They were also aware of great injustices perpetrated in the name of religion in the Colonies, including the banishment of Anne Hutchinson from the Boston Colony and the witch killings in Salem as well as of problems created by the wedding of church and state in the New Haven Colony, in which only members of the church in good standing had the right to vote on town matters. They did not want religious authorities to have the power to dictate laws. So they were interested in protecting people from the control of religious authorities.


      • …and that is why our 1st amendment explicitly and precisely proscribes religion from control, NOT.
        Our 1st names what Govermnent will NOT do ….precisely what the Founders meant!

        your zeal does not provide a right to re-write our Constitution.


  5. Carole thank you for your analysis of the issues of the day. Your voice is always balanced and clear in the midst of much misinformation. Overlooked in the discourse is the fact that the Equal Rights Amendment proposed in 1923 has not been added to our Constitution. Over the years some courts have used the 14th Amendment to push equal rights for women forward. However Justice Scalia made it clear in an interview in California Lawyer Magazine 2011 that the 14th Amendment was not intended to include women and that the Supreme Court, not being an activist court, can decide to overlook discrimination against women. Indiana does not have a State ERA. The women in Indiana are not equal to the men and discrimination based on Religious preferences is now protected against the women. In my view this is the sleeping giant.



  1. » The Inalienable Right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness vs. the Right to Religious Freedom by Carol P. Christ

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