Gay Writes

Religious Freedom and the Conflict of Interest

Cheryl Costa explores issues of religious freedom in terms of conflict of interest.

I suppose the hardest thing to grasp in this whole religious freedom argument is the notion that you are a citizen first, beholden to the laws of your constitutional country, your spiritual beliefs and practices are personally yours.

Our beloved Constitution via the First Amendment protects us each from the state establishing a national religion. Over the centuries, masses of immigrants have come to this land to escape the religious persecution in the land of their birth, often because of government-specified religious beliefs.

One of the problems, as I see it, is the presumption of dominance by some religious sects. For example, 30 years ago, my corporate job moved me to a southern state. Everywhere I went for services, someone would welcome me and my spouse to the area and ask me “What church do you attend?” I wondered why such a question was asked at the electric company, the car dealership or the dentist’s office.  I would hesitantly answer that I was Buddhist. Suddenly, the conversation would grow cold. Ah, this was a social test. Was I one of the Christian saved or one of those other people?

This problem went as far as a physician casually asking that question during a routine examination. Upon my answer, he gave me a sour look and told me, “I don’t like you, I’d rather not treat you.” The man barely knew me as a new patient and made a judgement to my character on what faith I embraced. There after, his office wouldn’t book me for appointments.

The good doctor’s medical practice was a state-licensed commercial establishment. While I respect the good doctor’s personal beliefs, I was annoyed at his lack of secular neutrality in his place of business. This is bigotry, clear and simple. The same kind of prejudice where a wedding cake maker won’t sell to a gay couple, or a pizza vendor wouldn’t take an order from a Muslim woman with a head scarf.

Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marveled at him” (Mark 12:17)

I think the lesson Jesus was telling us was to be a devout and faithful, but be a responsible citizen. Hold your beliefs sacred and personal, but in the public setting. Respect all other citizens.

The other problem, as I see it, during the marriage equality debate, one of the most vocal issues was the problem of the clergy being “forced” to marry same-sex couples as the state required. Suddenly, during this debate, the issue of special exceptions were needed for religious institutions to preserve religious freedom. I agree with them. Their faith’s sacred marriage practice shouldn’t be infringed upon by state-mandated requirements, pure and simple.

But the elephant in the room is twofold. Marriage, despite the sacred aspects that organized religious institutional rhetoric pontificates, has always been about contracts, money and property. That falls into the realm of legal and therefore, the state. As I see it, for too long mainstream faith clergy have enjoyed the privilege of being both a sacred and civil celebrant of weddings. The problem here is the obvious conflict of interest that it represents: For Jesus also said:No one can serve two masters… Matthew 6:24

Despite perceived tradition, the clergy has no business representing the state in marriages, period. Especially now, when they are clamoring for special exemptions, something they already have via the First Amendment.  Many western countries require a civil ceremony with a representative of the state: a city clerk, a judge or appointed civil celebrant. If you want a faith based observance that is your right, go see your clergy, but it isn’t recognized in the eyes of the state.

So if we take all clergy members out of the civil marriage business, we solve a laundry list of problems. Chief among them is removing a state-required mandate on whom a church and its clergy must bestow its marriage sacraments. This clearly protects religious freedom and removes a controversial conflict of interest.

Secondly, the question of your personal beliefs and denial of commercial service becomes purely an issue of civil bigotry, something that can be handled with established case law.

The bottom line in the religious freedom vs. secular neutrality question is simple. Clearly separation of church and state, starting with getting clergy out of the civil aspects of marriage is key.

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