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Does Religious Liberty Equal Freedom to Discriminate?

I happened to leave the country on the day that President Obama made his historic statement that he was in favor of same-sex marriage. I had expected his statement to ruffle feathers from those who found such partnerships difficult to reconcile with their religious beliefs, but I arrived back to find that the resulting outcry was completely counter-intuitive.

I had expected that some people might condemn him for a flawed morality. Instead, I found that the offensive was based on the argument that his defense of same-sex marriage represented an attack on religious liberty. Maybe it is just because when visiting other developed countries it is sometimes easy to forget how it is possible that religious discussion can permeate politics as deeply as it does in the US, but nevertheless it seemed unfathomable to me that the President’s statement that we should grant some additional rights to some individuals represented an attack on the liberty of others.

After all, his statement was about the right to marry, which is a secular legal issue. Even if the state were to recognize same-sex marriages, churches, mosques or synagogues or other places of worship would not be required to hold wedding ceremonies within them or sanction such marriages because no legal standing is attributed to such ceremonies or sanctions. Where is the attack on liberty?

Soon after that it turned out that many Catholic organizations raised an outcry when Katherine Sebelius, the Health and Human Services Secretary and a practicing Catholic, was invited to speak at the Georgetown University graduation ceremony. Many senior officials, including the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington wanted the invitation revoked simply because Sebelius fought to get insurance coverage for women using contraceptives. And this week, the Virginia House killed the appointment of a qualified judicial nominee… because he is gay!

All of these developments suggest that the banner of ‘religious liberty’ is effectively more akin to the ‘right to discriminate’. For the state to treat organized religious groups differently than it does other organizations implies special rights for these groups to behave differently than others. But this requires such religious groups to determine who is in the “in’ group, and who is in the ‘out’ group, and because religious doctrine guides moral behavior, it provides an opportunity for members of the group to condemn the behavior of those not in the group.

Recently the Institute I direct at Arizona State University brought together experts in psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, and primatology to examine the origins of xenophobia in modern human societies . Clearly there are deep biological causes for what is now a cognitive social phenomenon. At a cellular level it is obviously advantageous to be able to distinguish foreign organisms within the body. Our primate cousins often rely on rather violent assaults by groups on non-members who may wander into their territory as a way of asserting reproductive control. And some sociobiologists and evolutionary pyschologists have argued that group selection is an important force driving human evolution, and that ritual and religious ceremonies that build cohesion established an early advantage for tribal groups as they competed for resources.

Whatever the evolutionary basis of religion, the xenophobia it now generates is clearly maladaptive. In a democratic society, in principle governed by reason, denying the rights of human beings for whom biology differently directs the basic human drives of sexual attraction, or the rights of women or men to control their sexual behavior should not be identified with liberty. One might rationally argue that individual human beings should be free to choose what moral behavior they approve of, and which they don’t, subject to the constraints of the law. But when organized religious groups gain power of any form, power over the state, power over women, or power over children, the results inevitably lead to restrictions on liberty based on discrimination. Happily, the number of adults who claim some religious affiliation has been dropping in the United States at a steady rate, from 91% in 1948 to 77% in 2008, and most recently in the UK the number of adults surveyed claiming no such affiliation was as high as 50%.

It is thus possible to imagine a time when religious adults, and the institutions with which they are affiliated, will be in the minority. Until that time it is nevertheless incumbent upon us to recognize that it is inappropriate for religion to play any role in issues of state a modern democracy. Organized religion, wielding power over the community, is antithetical to the process of what modern democracy should define as liberty. The sooner we are without it, the better.

Lawrence M. Krauss is Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. His most recent book is A Universe from Nothing.



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