The Rev. Erin Wathen: Religious freedom is not a right to mistreat others

February 24, 2014 

The Rev. Erin Wathen, a London, Ky., native and a former Lexington pastor, is senior pastor at Saint Andrew Christian Church in Olathe, Kan.


  • At issue: Feb. 16 Associated Press article, "Same-sex marriage opponents look for new solutions; Court rulings, including Kentucky's, quickly change the legal landscape."

Legislation recently passed by the Kansas House making it totally legal and legitimate to refuse services to same-sex couples is just one more way Americans have managed to slap a "religious freedom" sticker on run-of-the-mill discrimination.

As the larger society makes steps toward equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens, smaller interest groups push back in last, grasping efforts to marginalize and condemn.

This is not surprising. What is deeply disturbing is the framing of this law as religious freedom, when in fact it has nothing to do with religion. Or freedom.

I recently heard an NPR story about an Massachusetts man who thought he'd landed his dream job as a school cafeteria manager. But in the last round of interviews the administrators realized he was gay and reneged on the job offer. When interviewed, the man said, "I mean, I'm not going to make gay muffins ... gay cheeseburgers. What are you afraid of?"

Religious groups have a right to ban certain practices and teachings within their own institutions. They don't have to hire a gay priest if they believe the Bible condemns homosexuality. They don't have to marry a same-sex couple if they believe scripture instructs against it. And they do not have to even consider a female for a leadership role, if the Lord has revealed to them that women are to remain silent in churches.

But if you take the gay man out of the worship service and the Christian classroom and place him in the cafeteria, does religious freedom extend that far?

Or take him to a totally secular, privately owned business? Is the restaurant owner who refuses to serve him really within the bounds of religious freedom as outlined in the Constitution?

The man would be nowhere near the restaurant owner's church. Encroaching lesbians would not threaten the restaurant owner with bodily injury for posting the Ten Commandments or pictures of Jesus in his place of business.

The Kansas bill — which Senate Republican leaders have so far refused to consider — also extends the "right to refuse services" to state employees. Can a public school teacher refuse to teach the child of a same sex couple? Can a firefighter or a police officer walk away from a burning home if gay people live there?

We don't know what the broader impact would be if such a law was passed.

But I do know this: The prospects are frightening, and nothing about it is biblical, Christ-like or remotely related to the life of faith.

And it abuses the spirit of the Constitution, which serves all the people, not a privileged few. Freedom of religion emerged from a desire to escape the tyranny of government-sanctioned belief and practice. That particular article of governance exists so that whomever is in power at the moment cannot subject the minority to his particular form of belief or practice.

The First Amendment is meant to protect faith from governance. Attempting to write your faith into law then creates the very tension that amendment was meant to destroy.

But of far greater concern is how public understanding of faith has come to bear such toxic implications for humanity. As if it were somehow a basic right of believers to shape the world into their own narrow image of God.

Whatever you believe about same-sex marriage, LGBT presence in church leadership or biblical teachings on homosexuality, people of faith need to holler back right about now and say that freedom of religion does not extend to the arbitrary mistreatment of others. Even if you believe that homosexual behavior is fundamentally sinful, you should rail against the notion that the Christian narrative can be used in such a harmful way.

Because here's the truth: Faith is the substance of things hoped for. Faith is the conviction of things unseen. Faith is not the word-for-word writ of doctrine, sanctified by the law of the land. Faith is not the promise that you will always be comfortable, or that you will be always allowed to surround yourself with like-minded people.

To practice any religion is to believe in a power higher than one's self; to trust in a creative force, alive and at work in the world. Using that force for our own cruel manipulations of the social order is an abomination.

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