I would like to encourage you to watch a one-hour event hosted by the Heritage Foundation on June 15th that focused on religious liberty and discrimination.

It is a great example of a civil dialogue on these matters that is often missing from our national discourse.

The three co-authors of Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination, Ryan T. Anderson, John Corvino, and Sherif Girgis, discussed their book and answered questions from the audience.

Corvino is the chairman of the philosophy department at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan and an LGBT activist who supports same-sex marriage. He co-wrote Debating Same-Sex Marriage with Maggie Gallagher.

Corvino discussed the balance between special protections for religion and the importance of equal protection under the law.

“The worry by giving special exemptions to religious conscience we are creating kind of ‘special rights’ for religious people,” he said.

Discussing the Hobby Lobby case he noted “(when) we have a duly passed law (the Affordable Care Act) whether some people should be able to get exemptions from that law on the basis of religious belief. The worry is that this not just becomes religious liberty, but a kind of religious privilege. Both because it gives religious people an opt-out of the law that non-religious people don’t have, but also because of consistency concerns about the kinds of religious exemptions that courts have been willing to grant. If we allow Hobby Lobby to opt out because of religious belief what do we then say to the Scientologist who says, ‘I don’t want to provide mental health care, I don’t want to provide anti-depressants for my employees.’ What do we say to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who say ‘I don’t want to pay for blood transfusions’?” Corvino said.

“We find that judges are more sympathetic to the evangelical Christian claims than to the other kinds of claims. And then the religious privilege problem because especially stark because you are not privileging religion, you are privileging certain kinds of religion,” he added. “We have to confront squarely what it is that exemptions do. They tell certain people they don’t have to play by the same rules as everybody else.”

Girgis is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Princeton University and also co-author with Anderson of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense.

“Moral and religious integrity matter in themselves. You are free to pursue the ultimate questions about human life, where we came from, where are you going, whether there is a God, what that God or what morality, in general, requires from you? And then you are free to live by those convictions you are better off than if you don’t. And you are better off even if your convictions are wrong,” Girgis said.

“We think there is something valuable by somebody being able to live by their convictions. The thing about both of these aspects of integrity, moral, as well as, religious, is that you don’t get the value of those unless you are free in making these choices. Unless you are free to pursue the answers that you honestly come by,” he added.

He said the first thing religious liberty does is make people better off. He also said it provides benefits for civil society.

“Lots of scholars have shown that religious liberty and the idea that people must be free to pursue it and the state has to bow to conscience was the beginning of the idea of civil society as something separate from the state that the state isn’t the ultimate authority of power, the ultimate seat of power and cultural authority and it needs to make room for what Burke called the platoons of civil society between the individual and the state,” Girgis said. “The are things that you should find valuable and wonderful whether you are religious or not.”

Anderson is the William E. Simon senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation and author of the book Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom.

“The ability for religious liberty protection is going to be inversely related to the underlying public policy that creates the burden. For example, the prohibition on murder is such a compelling state interest and such a burden that we won’t grant religious liberty exemptions from the prohibition on murder. We don’t grant conscientious exemptions from the prohibition on murder. We do, however, grant protection for pacifists for military service. We say ‘national defense,’ one of the main reasons why we have a national government is to defend the nation, we say that is a compelling purpose, but we can find a way to accommodate pacifists. So we have religious liberty protections for pacifists,” Anderson stated.

He then asked whether religious liberty exemptions for providing contraceptives and abortifacients or exemptions in anti-discrimination laws fall? Are they more like in the case of murder where the government does not provide exemptions or more like the draft where they do?

“The government exists to protect the ability of citizens to flourish. It is to promote the common good where the state is not the primary actor in seeking the common good, but the state’s role is to set-up the conditions where citizens can seek their good and the good of their communities,” Anderson said.

“Part of this is recognizing that religion is part of the common good. The religious lives of your citizens is one of the things that you as the state has to take into consideration so religious liberty is protecting the space for your citizens to seek out the religious good as they understand it,” he added.

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