Garnett on Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Freedom

Our friend Rick Garnett (Notre Dame) has a short piece on Commonweal concerning the implications of the Supreme Court’s recent same-sex marriage decisions (Rick’s primary focus is the DOMA decision, United States v. Windsor) for claims of religious freedom. The essay may be usefully read, I think, as having larger application to the issue of exemptions from generally applicable laws. A bit from the conclusion of Rick’s essay:

It is easier to respect religious freedom in law and policy when everyone agrees or when governments do not do very much. With disagreement and regulation, however, inevitably comes conflict between religious commitments and legal requirements and, when it comes, the majority tends to take care of itself. What about the rest? In a constitutional democracy like ours, we are generally willing to absorb some costs and suffer some inconveniences in order to accommodate the invocation of rights by dissenting or idiosyncratic minorities, especially when the majority thinks that it has a stake in those rights. For example, America still takes a robustly libertarian approach to the freedom of speech, and protects offensive and worthless expression to an anomalous extent, because most Americans still think that protecting misuses and abuses of the right is “worth it.”

However, as religious liberty increasingly comes to be seen as something clung to by a few rather than cherished and exercised by many, as religious traditions and teachings start to strike many as the expensive and even dangerous concerns of quirky, alien margin-dwellers, and as the “benefits” of allowing religious believers’ objections or religious institutions’ independence to stand in the way of the majority’s preferred policies begin to look more like extractions by small special-interest groups than broadly shared public goods, we should expect increasing doubts about whether religious liberty is really “worth it.” We should be concerned that the characterization by the majority in Windsor of DOMA’s purpose and of the motives of the overwhelming and bipartisan majority of legislators that supported it reflects a view that those states—and religious communities—that reject the redefinition of marriage are best regarded as backward and bigoted, unworthy of respect. Such a view is not likely to generate compromise or accommodation and so it poses a serious challenge to religious freedom.

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