Free Exercise

Well, this ‘Christians suing for right to be intolerant‘ thing is certainly a place where free speech rights (and the ‘free exercise’ clause and reason and religion and quite a few other things) get interesting, or difficult, or both.

Ruth Malhotra went to court last month for the right to be intolerant. Malhotra says her Christian faith compels her to speak out against homosexuality. But the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she’s a senior, bans speech that puts down others because of their sexual orientation. Malhotra sees that as an unacceptable infringement on her right to religious expression. So she’s demanding that Georgia Tech revoke its tolerance policy. With her lawsuit, the 22-year-old student joins a growing campaign to force public schools, state colleges and private workplaces to eliminate policies protecting gays and lesbians from harassment…The Rev. Rick Scarborough, a leading evangelical, frames the movement as the civil rights struggle of the 21st century. “Christians,” he said, “are going to have to take a stand for the right to be Christian.”

One problem with Malhotra’s claim is that it’s very disputable whether her Christian ‘faith’ does compel her to speak out against homosexuality. Other Christians don’t experience that compulsion, so that raises the question, is it really the Christian ‘faith’ that does the compelling, or is it something else that feels to Malhotra like her Christian ‘faith’ because she’s never thought to disaggregate her ‘faith’ from her ethical and moral views? And if so is this failure to disaggregate merely a way of dressing up nasty hatreds and yuk-factorism as something admirable and spirichual? My guess would be yes, that is what it is – but then that could just be part of my habit of religion-bashing.

As they step up their legal campaign, conservative Christians face uncertain prospects. The 1st Amendment guarantees Americans “free exercise” of religion. In practice, though, the ground rules shift depending on the situation. In a 2004 case, for instance, an AT&T Broadband employee won the right to express his religious convictions by refusing to sign a pledge to “respect and value the differences among us.” As long as the employee wasn’t harassing co-workers, the company had to make accommodations for his faith, a federal judge in Colorado ruled. That same year, however, a federal judge in Idaho ruled that Hewlett-Packard Co. was justified in firing an employee who posted Bible verses condemning homosexuality on his cubicle. The verses, clearly visible from the hall, harassed gay employees and made it difficult for the company to meet its goal of attracting a diverse workforce, the judge ruled. In the public schools, an Ohio middle school student last year won the right to wear a T-shirt that proclaimed: “Homosexuality is a sin! Islam is a lie! Abortion is murder!” But a teen-ager in Kentucky lost in federal court when he tried to exempt himself from a school program on gay tolerance on the grounds that it violated his religious beliefs.

The ground rules shift depending on the situation. Don’t they though. That’s why these discussions of free speech and cartoons and Irving and Ellis and whatever the latest item is, are always with us.

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