As this issue is examined, I must inquire:
- Why does discrimination exist?
- Can such discrimination be justified on the grounds of "religious liberty"?
- What should be our response to discrimination?
WHY DOES DISCRIMINATION EXIST?
First, what is discrimination, and how does it differ from prejudice? In terms of social psychology, prejudice refers to the negative emotions and feelings towards another social group. In contrast, discrimination refers to the negative actions or behaviours towards another group.
We all have are taught to categorize, as we learn and grow. Indeed, the ability to discern who you are "safe" around and who you may not be "not safe around" is a key learning phase in a child’s development. The ability to categorize brings not only perceived safety, but also a sense of belonging, and the development of relationships with others that share your beliefs and your world.
For example, as a young white boy growing up in Charlotte, NC, in which forced integration of the schools occurred when I was 13, at first I had been sheltered from blacks. I had very little contact with blacks before school integration occurred. And I had been taught to fear blacks. Even today, more than four decades later, when I look at a black person often the first thought that comes to my mind is not whether that person is nice, or smart, or kind - but simply that the person is black. The teaching of fear is, indeed, a very powerful lesson that is difficult to overcome.
Yet, over time teachings change. Today's generation of students have (hopefully) not been taught to fear others of another race. I hope that today's students do not have the same initial reaction that I do, when viewing a student of another race. Rather that they can look at each other as individual persons first, ignoring their skin color (or religion, or sexual orientation), and seeing all of the gifts a person has to offer.
CAN DISCRIMINATION BE JUSTIFIED ON THE BASIS OF RELIGIOUS LIBERTY?
Religion is a strong force in our society. Religion can be a immense force for good. Towering figures such as Mahatma Ghandi, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa improved the lives of millions and used the lessons of religion to liberate people, not oppress them.
Yet, a cursory review of the history shows that invoking religious preference to justify discrimination and oppression is a common tool. In the United States this tool was utilized against blacks in justifying slavery (and, thereafter, segregation and oppression), against women in denying them the right to vote, and against gays in denying them various rights - including the right to marry.
Fortunately, we have a U.S. Constitution. The Constitution guarantees your right to practice your religion as you see fit, but it also prevents the government from using religion to deny people certain rights.
So, what if - for example - you run a bakery shop. And you adopt the view on the basis of your "religious liberty" that you will not provide wedding cakes to gays. Or perhaps you decide to not hire any blacks in your shop. Or, perhaps even, that you will not hire women. Is this your choice?
The Constitution does not protect their religiously motivated right to discriminate in all cases. While under freedom of association and freedom of speech a private gathering may choose to exclude persons (as happens in some church congregations, and some private clubs), the interests of those oppressed must also be taken into account. A balancing of interests must occur.
Hence, we must recognize that people of faith do not exist in a vacuum. Their decisions impact their employees. Moreover, their decision to refuse to do business with someone — especially for reasons such as race or sex or sexual orientation — can fundamentally demean that individual and deny them their own right to participate equally in society. For this reason, the baker must, as a part of commerce and society, must be called upon to serve those to whom the baker would otherwise deny service. And the baker should not be permitted to discriminate as to employment.
We must remember that our Declaration of Independence proclaimed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men ...."
And, let us also remember that the Preamble of the Constitution announced its purpose to be, among other things, securing “the blessings of liberty.” And, the story of our nation is that of bringing the promise of opportunity - to work, and to enjoy the fruits of labor, to more and more people. This hope, and promise, should not be denied to others as they engage in commerce and in activities within society, on the basis of religious freedom.
WHAT SHOULD BE OUR RESPONSE TO DISCRIMINATION?
We must oppose it, at every turn. Yet, the opposition must not necessarily involve more laws proscribed by government (although at times this may be necessary). Government is not the cure-all for all things.
Rather, we must recognize that discrimination continues today - at fairly high levels - because we as private citizens have not fully embraced the ideas of the Declaration of Independence. We must renew our work, privately, to secure the blessings of liberty for all. And we must do this in our everyday lives.
For example, we may express dismay at the discrimination against women in some Islamic countries - in not permitting them to vote, work at certain jobs, drive cars, or travel about unescorted. But what of discrimination against women in the Roman Catholic Church? What reason exists to deny women the ability to join the priesthood, or even aspire to one day become Pope? While our current Pope (whom I respect greatly for his emphasis on service to the poor, and other others) has justified this discrimination on the basis of "tradition," I find this to be a rather weak argument. Hence, if we are members of the Roman Catholic church, we should make our opinions known - that "religious tradition" is no more a viable excuse to discriminate against women than is "religious liberty."
What about the discrimination that exists today, as to blacks? While we hope that our institutions of government will not discriminate themselves, this still occurs (e.g., some police officers succumb to their prejudice). But, should we not - ourselves - seek to counter discrimination? Certainly we should speak up against it, when in occurs. But can we do more - proactively, rather than reactively?
For example, why do so many of us segregate ourselves when we attend church? Why, at school (even college), do so many students sit at lunch tables in which only whites are present, or blacks are present, or Chinese are present, etc.?
To make better progress toward ending discrimination we must expect better of ourselves. We must invite those who are segregated from us, for whatever reason, to join with us instead. We must be open to learning of the cultures of others, and having those cultures influence even our own ways of life.
This is not an easy task. It will take time. And there will be resistance. As there has been. Casting aside prejudice, whether it be motivated by an instilled sense of fear, or otherwise, is difficult. But it can be done.
Working to eliminate prejudice, proactively, is the right and just path. For, truly, all men and women are created equal. Each one of us deserves the opportunity to secure for themselves the American dream. As Americans, the blessings of equality and liberty are bestowed upon us all.