The notion of religious liberty has lately conveyed an impoverished attitude toward the common good among Christians. Namely, “we’ll pay for what we like, and won't pay for what we don’t.”
This stubbornness cropped up last week in College Station, Texas, when the student senate at Texas A&M voted for students to have the privilege of diverting tuition payments from services they object to on moral grounds. Named the “Religious Funding Exemption Bill,” the broadened proposal’s original language (“GLBT Funding Opt Out Bill”) specifically targeted funds going to the campus’ GLBT Resource Center.
Understandably, the vote sparked significant anger and sadness among LGBT students and allies at A&M. “It’s really disappointing,” said A&M alum Caitlin Anderson, now faculty member at a nearby university in Dallas. “Aggies are family. Every student deserves the resources they need to be successful in college. For many, A&M’s GLBT Resource Center is the only place that provides those things. If they close doors to the center, they close doors to those students.”
This was echoed in the national media, which interpreted the bill as thinly veiled discrimination against the campus LGBT community. But missing from the coverage was a real look at the bill’s usage of religious exemption — or more specifically, its misuse. In its bill, the student government at A&M confused religious liberty with religious control, and managed to do a good degree of community damage in the process.
The Texas A&M student government’s struggle to assert religious identity is only one example from this last week (see also: attempts to establish a state religion in North Carolina.) Fortunately, these cases have legal precedents against them, and both attempts have since been overruled.
But for those of us thankful to live in a country with significant religious freedom, this brand of interpretation is a problem.
To be clear: religious liberty grants freedom, but it is a specific kind of freedom. Civil liberty is that which removes barriers to one’s ability to exercise this freedom. For centuries, from Kant to Berlin, this has been considered a negative — as in, passive — liberty. Unlike rights, which often require government action to uphold them, liberties are inherent freedoms protected from intrusive government action.
Religious liberty can only be taken seriously when it stops short of personal preference. For example, a priest may serve wine to minors at communion. Despite laws about underage drinking, the state removes barriers to a church performing harmless, centuries-old religious rites in the name of religious liberty. But being granted this liberty does not imply this same priest can invoke religious liberty in refusing to pay for neighborhood trash services because she doesn’t approve of the beer cans in her young neighbor’s recycling bin.
At the Texas A&M voting session, one student defending the bill compared forcing students to pay for the GLBT center to forcing doctors to perform partial-birth abortions. "Our decision here is not going to reach that far," he said at the meeting. "I just want to show how dangerous a philosophy is that some organization, government or otherwise, can make a person do what is against their most deeply held beliefs."
That would be sobering indeed, except that no one is forcing these students to violate their personal beliefs. By enrolling in a public university, whose mission statement includes a commitment to diversity, the students have willingly relinquished their funds to the university’s discretion.
Whether it’s opting out of funding services that promote the mental and physical health of fellow students or attempting to establish one’s beliefs as the official moral code of a state, what is by nature a passive freedom is too often being misapplied into an aggressive attempt to control our nation’s narrative.
For all the freedoms as we enjoy in this country, some American Christians carry a curious hypersensitivity to religious persecution. It is human nature to respond to threats with defense, but when a group historically imbued with power acts out of insecurity it translates as privileged meanness, pure and simple. Of course, gestures like the ones at Texas A&M may be largely symbolic (each student pays an estimated $2 to the GLBT center). But such gestures often wield tremendous power for our neighbors and each other, and its hurtfulness underscores the high price we collectively pay of taking ‘principled stands’ simply for the standings’ sake.
As religious liberty remains a contentious cultural touch point, it would do us all well to consider how our faith calls us to live in accordance with our “most deeply held beliefs.” Christians have the freedom to opt in, however wholeheartedly or cautiously, to our religion. We may live in a secularized society, but we are free to proclaim Jesus as Lord — however morally repugnant that may sound to others — without fear of persecution.
Shame on us if we do not extend the same grace to others.
Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor at Sojourners. Find her on Twitter at @chwoodiwiss.