Mian: Don’t allow religious freedom to become cover for discrimination


Naib Mian, Columnist

Say hello to your most recently recognized God-given right: the right to discriminate.

Let’s take a step back for a second — no, that is not a new right we have, and no, we shouldn’t let it become one.

Last week, Arizona’s state legislature passed a bill that would give any business, church or individual the right to cite the exercise of religious freedom in a discrimination lawsuit. After heated discussions and media-publicized backlash, Arizona’s governor Jan Brewer vetoed the bill Wednesday. 

But the issue is not confined to this state alone. Similar bills have been proposed in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Kansas. Despite this victory in Arizona, it’s important not to forget about the problematic trend it has brought up.

These bills would give businesses the license to discriminate or deny services to same-sex couples because of their religious beliefs, as well as anyone else whose beliefs or ways of life conflict with their religion. American judicial precedent has always protected the freedom to believe, but not necessarily the freedom to act on those beliefs, especially if those actions interfere with others’ freedoms.

Though courts have often been able to enforce anti-discrimination laws over religious belief, states like Arizona don’t have laws that protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Even on the federal level, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit employment practices that discriminate based on sexual orientation, has failed to pass for 20 years in Congress. It is unquestionable that religious freedom must be protected, but we cannot allow it to manifest itself as a license to limit the freedoms of others.

LGBTQ marriage rights have expanded on a state-by-state level, and the Supreme Court invalidated discriminatory laws including the national Defense of Marriage Act. Still, we must not be blinded by these successes. These new bills are significant examples of the fact that the struggle for equality is far from over.

The conversation about LGBTQ rights has been dominated by the debate over marriage equality, but marriage is not the only concern, and for some people, it isn’t a concern at all.

These recent bills, on the other hand, expose a more troubling movement that attempts to chip away at the most basic rights of an already marginalized population. For a privately owned hospital to deny service to an individual whose sexual orientation conflicts with their religious beliefs is as concerning — and to me, even more so — than the inability to seal one’s love through marriage. The symbolic and sentimental importance of marriage is unquestionably important, but discrimination on an individual, economic level is an attack on the livelihood of people and strikes at their most basic and fundamental liberties. That is something we cannot stand for.

A society in which one group is marginalized will always have the potential for greater discrimination or marginalization. We are not free until all members of our community enjoy the same freedoms. The struggle for equality is one that continues throughout history, and though we should celebrate the victories that may come along the way, we cannot lose sight of the ultimate goal.

Significant pressure against the bills, though, lends testament to a changing mindset. This isn’t just a Republican or Democrat issue, nor is it even solely a threat to LGBTQ rights: It’s an issue of protecting liberties. Brewer, a Republican, understood the dangers of the bill, saying, “Religious liberty is a core American and Arizona value, so is no discrimination.” John McCain and Jeff Flake, Arizona’s Republican senators, called on the governor to veto the bill, and the NFL explored the option of moving the 2015 Super Bowl out of Arizona if the bill became law.

Despite the fact that a bill like this might not be present in Illinois or the state you’re from, this is a larger national problem we all must care about. Until we affirm the right to not be discriminated against on a national level, this problem will continue to rise up at the state level. As citizens of the United States, our interests must lie beyond merely our own states, but in the welfare of the nation as a whole.

In an attempt to promote religious freedom, or more specifically the right to discriminate based on religious belief, bills such as the one Arizona’s state legislature passed put at risk any individual whose faith, beliefs or love conflict with another’s religion. This is not religious freedom — in fact, it flies in the face of religious freedom, establishing religion as a reason to discriminate or be discriminated against.

Arizona’s governor understood that. Let’s make sure future decision-makers do as well.

Naib Mian is a Medill freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].