Should certain Americans have special rights?

Joe Crews

Should religious sects be a protected class?
What about gays and lesbians?

INSIGHTS by Joe Howard Crews - 30aug09

Freedom of religion is a sacrosanct right and tradition in the United States, enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” The right to practice freely one’s religion of choice was near the top of the priority list for the American revolutionaries. The founders understood what it meant to be persecuted for one’s beliefs. Today law-abiding, peaceful Muslim Americans face particular hostility in America, seized by terrorist hysteria.

Chinese dictator Mao Zedong said “Religion is poison”, but most people believe their particular religion is transcendent truth, or at least a pragmatic, functional crutch. It doesn’t matter. People should be free to practice their brand of religion or mythology so long as it does no harm to other people.

Today, 222 years after the final drafting of our Constitution, the great debate over religious liberty continues to rage. There is a constant struggle over where to draw the line between protection of religious freedom and other civil rights, including reproductive healthcare for women and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people. And the concept of “hate crimes legislation” particularly rattles cages housing fundamentalists.

Religions are not classified as “protected groups”, even those that are highly unconventional, and subject to widespread discrimination and abuse. The ACLU argues that they should be “protected”, whereas many conservative fundamentalist scholars argue that they don’t think that religion needs the protection of government in order to survive. In fact, those same scholars generally agree that there should be no special protection given under the law give to any class of people. Fine theory, agreed, but in our society we do give much higher protection to law enforcement officials and wealthy people, and give them greater leniency to break the law.

Why then, do we have “protected classes” under federal law for women, indigenous minorities such as blacks, American Indians, Asians, Pacific Islanders, disabled veterans and people with disabilities? What distinguishes them from religious groups? Indeed, the distinction is quite apparent: genetic and physical. One’s religion is a matter of choice, and has nothing to do with genetic makeup or physical limitations. After all, one can change his religion, and a vast number of people do, often multiple times. One can change one’s religious belief, but not one’s gender, race or disability. Some argue that if one is persecuted for a religious belief, the solution is simply to change one’s religion. It’s voluntary, not genetic. The same argument is made against special protection for gays: If gays are discriminated against, all they have to do is change their behavior.

This is a crucial distinction, because the next major group to be considered for protection will be homosexuals. Hate crimes legislation will soon be debated in the Senate. But the more bitter issue will be same-sex marriage. The federal case against Proposition 8 is scheduled to open Jan. 11, 2010, to decide whether it unconstitutionally denies marriage rights to same gender couples. The court likely will be pushed to consider and rule legally, whether one’s sexual orientation or identification is scientifically genetic or purely voluntary.

This is a more treacherous and convoluted matter than may at first seem, because one must also consider whether heterosexuality and bisexuality are genetic or choice. Because any such legal ruling would likely be made without incontrovertible biological evidence, it is a treacherous pursuit. We really have not produced conclusive evidence tha

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