Commentary Religion

Why Did Anti-Choice Activists Harass Unitarians in New Orleans?

Amanda Marcotte

Last week activists interrupted a New Orleans Unitarian Universalist service to hector the congregants, demonstrating how the anti-choice movement is seeking to attack the long-standing American tradition of religious tolerance.

As Teddy Wilson reported for Rewire, anti-choice protesters from the group Operation Save America spent a week recently harassing the residents of New Orleans (as though that city has not had its share of grief in recent years). The ostensible reason for the protests was to target a Planned Parenthood that’s being built in the area to provide legal abortion care, but one incident in particular showed how “abortion” continues to be a Trojan horse for the real agenda here: a fundamentalist attack on the long-standing American tradition of religious freedom and tolerance.

Some of the anti-choice activists invaded the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans while members were observing a moment of silence for a deceased congregant and proceeded to abuse and harass the people inside the church. The folks from Operation Save America were hardly ashamed of this deplorable behavior, instead bragging on their website about disrupting services at the “synagogue of Satan” and making special note of haranguing the female pastor, who they called a “pastor,” in scare quotes. (But they’re in this for “life” and not because they have a problem with women!) This behavior isn’t necessarily any worse than the miseries they subject clinic patients and workers to, but it serves as a reminder that the reason anti-choice “protesters” get into the lifestyle is that they are bullies, full stop.

Why did they pick on a Unitarian church? The ostensible reason is Unitarian support for reproductive rights and social justice, which antis seem to have decided Jesus was against, despite biblical evidence to the contrary. But let’s be honest here: Their hostility against the church likely was just as much, if not more, about the long-standing fundamentalist hostility to the Unitarian church for being open-minded and accepting of people who have a variety of beliefs. Unitarians have been targeted for hate crimes before, most notably in a Knoxville shooting in 2008.

(It’s worth pointing out that while Operation Save America—like most fundamentalist organizations—imagines itself “restoring” some kind of halcyon past, the Unitarian Universalist Church has deeper roots in American history than Bible-thumping fundamentalism. The two churches, which combined in the 1960s, date back to 1793 and 1825. In contrast, belief in the “Rapture,” which is a common marker of modern evangelical fundamentalists, only really started in the late 19th century and only became popular in the late 20th century.)

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Basically, “abortion” was just a flimsy cover for what’s really going on, which is a fundamentalist war on the very Enlightenment principles—of which the Unitarian Universalist Church is a long-standing historical emblem—that undergird our Constitution. There are many pro-choice churches, but the religious pluralism of the Unitarians is what really sets fundamentalists off. Indeed, there’s a strong reason to believe that the religious right is basically using the battle over reproductive rights to advance a much larger agenda against religious tolerance. And the strategy is to argue that their own “religious freedom” cannot be protected without taking yours away.

That is, after all, what’s at the heart of the two recent Supreme Court decisions over whether or not abortion clinics can have buffer zones and whether or not your boss’s opinion on birth control should matter more than your own when it comes to insurance coverage of contraception. In both cases, anti-choicers argued that their own freedom could only be protected by taking someone else’s away. With the abortion buffer zone case, anti-choicers argued that their “right” to impose their views on you should trump your right to ignore them. In the Hobby Lobby case, anti-choicers argued that “religious freedom” can only be protected by forcing other people’s health-care plans to meet your own religious beliefs, just because they work for you. In both cases, anti-choicers won with the argument that the fundamentalist “right” to impose their religion trumps the American tradition of religious tolerance.

Now the argument that the “religious freedom” of fundamentalists relies on taking the freedoms of others away is out there, and there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) was heard recently encouraging opponents of gay rights to see themselves as victimized and their religious freedom being trod upon, even though they are actually the ones seeking to take away the rights of others. “[T]oday, there is a growing intolerance on this issue, intolerance towards those who continue to support traditional marriage,” he said, claiming that it’s wrong, for instance, for the CEO of Mozilla to be forced out for being anti-gay. (Rubio did not extend this logic to its conclusion and argue for reinstating Donald Sterling as the owner of the LA Clippers. Why is it OK to fire people for being racist, but not for being anti-gay, Rubio?)

But mostly his argument rested on the assumption that calling bigotry by its rightful name is somehow a grievous violation of human rights. “And I promise you that even before this speech is over, I will be attacked as a hater, a bigot or someone who is anti-gay,” he said. “This intolerance in the name of tolerance is hypocrisy.”

The problem with this is no one is actually being “intolerant” of homophobes. No one is arguing that their freedom of speech should be denied, nor are they arguing that churches that preach anti-gay views should be shut down. No one is denying their right to organize or to hate gay people as long as they want. The “offensive” thing that gay rights activists are doing is fighting for their own rights. At the end of the day, what this argument boils down to is suggesting that the religious freedom of fundamentalists can only be protected by taking away the freedom, religious and otherwise, of gay people to marry—that your same-sex marriage somehow deprives them of rights.

Obviously, people should support reproductive rights for the sake of women’s health and well-being. But it’s also important to understand that while the attacks on reproductive rights are quite sincere—antis really are upset that you have sex without their permission!—the issue is part and parcel of a larger campaign to end the long American tradition of religious plurality, of understanding that the best way for religious freedom to be protected is for everyone to stay in their own lanes. It’s about giving fundamentalists not just the right to practice their own faith but the “right” to foist their faith on you.

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