We don’t need more religious freedom laws

A sign stating "Indy Welcomes All" greets fans at an Indiana Pacers game against the Miami Heat in response to a new religious freedom law recently passed in Indiana. USA TODAY Sports photo by Brian Spurlock.

A sign stating “Indy Welcomes All” greets fans at an Indiana Pacers game against the Miami Heat in response to a new religious freedom law recently passed in Indiana. USA TODAY Sports photo by Brian Spurlock.

In recent weeks, Indiana and Arkansas have both enacted so-called “religious freedom” laws that have been met with a flurry of concerns and criticisms.

More than a dozen other states are also considering similar legislation, sparking a national discussion on the role of religion in our society.

Although these laws are aimed at protecting the freedom of religion, a fundamental right already protected by our Constitution, many critics assert that that these laws provide a license to discriminate against certain individuals and groups, such as those involved in a same-sex marriage.

Maine even briefly jumped into the debate, as our state Legislature was debating a bill that would similarly provide increased government protections to those who practice religion.

But thankfully, the sponsor of the Maine bill, Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, decided to withdraw the legislation as he felt the bill would not get a fair hearing given the attention given to this issue.

Although religious freedom is a venerable idea that deserves protection, given the ample safeguards laid out in our Constitution, the freedom of religion clearly needs no further armor or defenses, or at least not from our government.

The First Amendment clearly states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Not only is our government not allowed to dictate which religion individuals may practice, but it is also prohibited from interfering with or preventing individuals from practicing religion in the manner that they wish.

Although this seems like an air-tight provision, proponents of religious freedom laws assert that the First Amendment does not do enough to prevent government from placing undue hardships and restrictions on individuals and preventing them from exercising their religious rights.

They say that not only can government force individuals to engage in behavior that violates their beliefs, but that individuals can be sued in court if they choose not to engage in this behavior.

Therefore, these religious freedom laws function by not only preventing government from  burdening an individual’s exercise of religion, but also by preventing individuals from having lawsuits brought against them for practicing religion.

But the first part of the law doesn’t seem necessary at all. Government is already constrained from preventing individuals from practicing religion. The First Amendment is loud and clear and plainly prevents our government from burdening or doing anything to prevent the free exercise of religion.

So religious freedom laws are not truly about protecting individuals from the government, but instead from other parties who feel they have suffered discrimination at the hands of someone exercising their religious beliefs.

Although religious freedom is not an issue that should be cast aside or ignored, religious discrimination on the individual level is certainly not an issue that can be best solved by big government.

Government and systems and institutions are not fair, are not unbiased, and are not perfect. They have no conscience and cannot change the views and beliefs of individuals no matter how hard they try.

I’m not arguing that we remove all laws aimed at preventing discrimination — but we can no longer use government legislation to mediate between religious individuals and businesses, and those who may not hold the same religious beliefs.

There is a time and place for government intervening in discriminatory environments, provided there is systemic or societal discrimination. This is not one of those cases.

So how do we move forward?

Simple. We go back to having government enforce laws, and we allow the First Amendment to work as intended.

We allow individuals to practice religion how they want, and for problems and disputes between individuals to be solved by individuals.

The First Amendment is a brilliant piece of our Constitution that has allowed America to be one of the most welcoming and accepting countries in the world.

Let’s keep our hands off it and let it work properly.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.