In Paul Kelly’s satirical song “God Told Me To,” there’s this line: “The wicked need chastisement, you know it’s either them or us.”
But neither satirizing nor chastising sinners has proven effective. Many of them keep getting re-elected. Then, to hear the godly tell it, they insist on passing laws expressly designed to thwart the righteous and exalt transgressors.
Republican state Senator David Burns of Whiting claimed in a November op-ed in the Bangor Daily News that in recent years, we have seen “an unprecedented attack on religious liberties in which those affected have no legal recourse.” In large part, Burns contends, these attacks have come from state government, which has passed laws that force believers to act in ways that are at odds with their values.
To deal with this intrusion into personal rights, Burns has sponsored LD 1428, “An Act To Protect Religious Freedom.” It says that if the state passes a law that conflicts with anyone’s “sincerely held religious tenet or belief,” that person can sue to be declared exempt from the statute and to receive damages.
Of course, the first thing opponents of this measure have claimed is that it’s intended to allow those opposed to same-sex weddings to continue to discriminate. But Burns insists, “This is not about gay marriage.”
Perhaps, but if so, it’s tough to figure out what it is about. Burns tried to come up with some examples, such as instances of municipalities denying churches’ requests to put crèches and religious displays on public property. But the First Amendment would seem to leave cities and towns with only two choices in dealing with these matters: They could permit any denomination — including atheists, Satanists, and Zoroastrians — to erect such exhibits or they could prohibit all of them. To allow some and not others would be a clear example of the sort of religious discrimination Burns allegedly abhors.
In another case, the senator mentions a seaside school district that had to stop including a blessing of the fishing fleet in one of its events because it constituted government-endorsed prayer. Again, to have allowed the practice to continue would have violated the Bill of Rights. And the argument that “nondenominational” prayer would alleviate the problem falls apart when one attempts to cover the concerns of the previously referenced religions, not to mention those groups that forbid men and women from worshipping together or those who believe prayer is only for thanking their deity and not for making requests.
Burns’s proposed law would do nothing to change these situations.
So, what would it do?
According to an online booklet put out by the Council on Religious Freedom and updated by the law firm of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood (both organizations that support laws such as the one Burns is sponsoring), this act would “not create certain victory for religious landlords or employers” who wanted to discriminate against gays, pregnant women, or other currently protected classes. Instead, says the booklet, it “would restore fairness to an arena in which the rights of privacy, association, and religion sometimes need to be balanced.”
There’s already been a US Supreme Court decision saying religious freedom laws can’t be used to justify racial discrimination. But as the booklet noted, “[T]he outcome may be less certain when non-racial characteristics such as gender, sexual orientation, or marital status are the basis of religiously motivated discrimination.”