Conscience clauses. They practically have the term “slippery slope” built right into their definition. Anti-choicers started by pushing the idea that pharmacists shouldn’t have to sell contraception if it somehow violates their heartfelt repulsion to what they believe is unapologetic sluttiness. But did anyone think it would stop there? Once the idea got loose that you have a right to not do your job if you disapprove of a client’s sex life, the doors were thrown wide open to all sorts of discrimination against customers, followed by a bout of acting like a martyr if you were pushed to do your actual job.
Well, the movement towards discrimination based on sexuality took a blow last week, when a federal judge ruled in favor of a counseling program that ejected a student who refused to do her job if her clients are gay. To no one’s great surprise, conservative pundits are telling their followers that this means that students in general are now subject to being expelled for holding bigoted beliefs they excuse through Christianity. This argument is, of course, nonsense. People are allowed to believe whatever bigoted things they want about their fellow human beings. What they aren’t allowed to do is act in bigoted ways contrary to their profession and expect to keep their jobs, a much different thing. A counselor who privately believes homosexuality is a sin but who manages to treat gay clients with respect and according to science-based guidelines (i.e. doesn’t try to convince clients they can change sexual orientation) would have no problem with these restrictions.
This ruling comes at a time when the “conscience clause” nonsense is being pushed hard by the right. For instance, the misleadingly named American Center for Law & Justice is suing the Capital Area Rural Transportation System (CARTS) for firing Edwin Graning because he refused to do his job, which is to take passengers where they want to go. In this case, Graning refused to take passengers to the local Planned Parenthood. Graning’s argument is full of self-serving pity—he’s claiming discrimination for his religious beliefs—but the only people that were discriminated against were his passengers that he refused to serve because of what he believed about their private sexual choices.
As Kyle at Right Wing Watch documented, Graning’s story is full of holes. Graning tried to spin the usual faux-concern-for-women tale, claiming that his wife called the Planned Parenthood in question and received a recorded message directing women with abortion complications to 911. The implication is that he was some hero, saving his passenger from certain death by abortion by refusing to take her to Planned Parenthood. Of course, it was quickly revealed that the actual recording is what you’d expect, some boilerplate about setting an appointment or volunteering time or money—nothing about abortion, and certainly nothing suggesting that their patients routinely end up in E.R. with Planned Parenthood washing their hands of them. Since abortion is relatively safe, and providers work with hospitals in the very rare case of emergencies, this is to be expected.
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Of course, there’s no reason to think women who requested a ride to Planned Parenthood should be assumed to be wanting an abortion instead of far more common services such as cancer screening or contraception counseling. Unless, of course, you’re a self-dramatic right wing fundamentalist looking to mislead people about the realities of women’s health care in order to separate women from it.
Despite his struggles with basic honesty, Graning is claiming that he’s a Christian and therefore he has a special right not to do his job. This is the right wing argument for religious freedom. It should be immediately obvious that their definition of “religious freedom” doesn’t apply to people who don’t practice their particular brand of Christianity. For instance, ACLJ believes that women whose religion doesn’t forbid abortion, contraception, or basic reproductive health care should not be allowed to use the same government services as everyone else, such as the bus system. Those women deserve to be treated as second-class citizens because they have the wrong religious beliefs.
In case the claims of “religious freedom” don’t seem empty enough on the surface, consider the case of Muslim cab drivers in Minnesota who refused to transport customers carrying bottles of alcohol, in most cases because they picked it up from the duty-free store. The cabbies other complaints of bad working conditions certainly deserve consideration, but as in most cases, the burden of not discriminating based on religious belief falls on those providing the public service. In case, that means that Muslim cab drivers have a duty not to discriminate against those who are behaving peacefully but don’t share their anti-alcohol beliefs.
But since conservatives believe that religious freedom means the right to refuse to do your job when you differ with your clients on a matter of religious dogma, they hopped right to defending the Muslim cabbies, right?
Of course not. On the contrary! The case was used to raise alarms about the non-existent threat that “shari’a law” was going to supplant our very Constitution, with its prohibitions against the state favoring religion over non-religion, or favoring one religion over another.
So, if the state enforces the right of fundamentalist Christians to discriminate on the basis of religion against people who don’t share their beliefs, that’s “freedom.” Anyone else who discriminates against clients is a threat to the very same freedom. Basically, the words “religious freedom,” from the mouths of social conservatives, mean protecting the right of fundamentalist Christians to persecute and discriminate against everyone else.
Let’s hope more judges follow the example set by the judge in the East Michigan University case, and see the fundamentalist claims for “religious freedom” as the dishonest attempts to deprive everyone else of rights that they are.