Undermining liberty in the name of religion

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Source: Caller Times

BY KATHY MILLER

Our state’s elected leaders claim to support religious freedom, but many are acting in ways that threaten and radically redefine that fundamental liberty.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton did so most recently when, earlier this month, he appointed a new top staff attorney for his office. Jeff Mateer, the office’s new first assistant attorney general, had been serving as general counsel for a political advocacy group that uses the courts to promote an agenda hostile to one of our most important protections for religious freedom: separation of church and state.

Mateer has explicitly rejected this key constitutional principle, declaring that church-state separation appears nowhere in the Constitution.

That’s a tired rhetorical trick. The specific words “fair trial,” “right to privacy” and “checks and balances” also aren’t stated expressly in the Constitution. But all of them, like separation of church and state, are long-established principles grounded in the Constitution’s provisions and upheld repeatedly by our courts.

Our nation’s founders wisely understood that to protect religious liberty, government must be prohibited from favoring or disfavoring any religion over all others. Someone who rejects separation of church and state simply isn’t a champion of religious liberty.

But the appointment of a foot soldier in the culture wars to such an important position also poses another danger: the radical redefinition of religious liberty to mean the right to use religion to discriminate against and harm others.

Mateer and politicians across the country have turned “religious freedom” into a talking point in their efforts to excuse businesses and individuals, even government officials, who fire or deny services to people who offend their religious beliefs. They cynically portray laws that bar such discrimination as evidence of government persecution of people of faith and threats to religious liberty.

But religious freedom has never meant the right to use religion to harm others or ignore laws you don’t like. Nor should it.

One is tempted to see Mateer’s appointment as an attempt by Attorney General Paxton, who has been indicted on criminal charges of securities fraud, to shore up his support among social conservatives. In fact, it is just the latest effort by the attorney general to use religion as a weapon to divide Texans in promotion of a reckless political agenda.

During the legislative session in 2015, the Attorney General’s Office supported — unsuccessfully — a number of bills that would have allowed the use of religion to discriminate. At a Texas Senate State Affairs hearing last month, a member of the attorney general’s staff promoted efforts to pass such legislation again in 2017. Attorney General Paxton has also expressed his support for such laws in letters to legislative leaders.

Opposition to same-sex marriage and to measures protecting gay and transgender people from unfair discrimination has fueled these calls for religious refusals — using religion to refuse to obey laws or other policies one doesn’t like. But make no mistake: Once you open the door for using religion to discriminate against any one group of people, then everyone is vulnerable.

Should government officials be allowed — based on their personal religious beliefs — to refuse to issue marriage licenses to people who have lived together or been divorced?

Should we look the other way when landlords who believe that bearing children out of wedlock is a sin refuse to rent to single mothers?

And if this campaign for religious refusals is successful, be prepared for a full-out assault on state and federal civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination.

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