What Liberals Don’t Understand About Religious Freedom

Originally published at Voices of Liberty

The world – or at least the country – has gone absolutely batty over Indiana’s recent passage of its Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The act, which has antecedents at both the federal and state levels, has generated cries of “Discrimination!” among its detractors. This has resulted in equally as emotional counterpoints from the law’s defenders.

Now, I am generally much more critical of those on the right than I am the left, but the hysterics of liberals in this case are ridiculous. Liberals, who constantly affirm their belief in the right of consenting adults to do as they please, are suddenly mortified by the idea that some people may make choices that they disagree with. It seems that liberals may not have any greater concern for freedom of choice than the conservatives they despise do.

While there are several potential explanations for why liberals are reacting this way, it seems to me that the real reason is that they are missing two key points.

First, nobody on earth has the right to anyone else’s stuff. You have no right to my car. I have no right to your house. Denial of this truth undermines the entire tradition of Western liberty, which is rooted in the fundamental right to your own property, including yourself. In fact, it is the rejection of this fundamental right that has liberty on the retreat all across the West.

The right to your own property and its use doesn’t disappear just because you own a business. The business, your property, is rightfully yours to do with as you please. This includes determining who you would like to serve and who you would not like to serve. The state cannot tell you who to do business with – that is, what to do with your own property – without taking away your fundamental right to that property and its use.

“But,” it might be objected, “won’t this allow people to discriminate against each other?” Yep. No doubt about it. But that’s not the question. The question is not if people will discriminate against others (newsflash: they always have and they always will) but is rather whether or not people have the right to use their property as they please, as long as they’re not aggressing against someone else.

As Justin Raimondo has observed, “the libertarian position…is that people have the right to be venal, small-minded, and, yes, viciously, stupidly, horribly wrong, provided they don’t initiate the use of force.” Liberty isn’t always pretty. The alternative is far worse.

Furthermore, the idea that it might be just as morally wrong for the law to force someone to violate his conscience as it is for someone to refuse to do business with someone else has apparently not occurred to liberals. They want to be able to wholly define and punish unacceptable social behavior, rights be damned.

The second point that liberals are missing is that adults – you know, the mature, consenting kind they’re always talking about – should have the ability to resolve their conflicts without resorting to the coercive power of the state. The reality is that legislation like that in Indiana wouldn’t exist if business owners weren’t concerned about being sued for choosing who and who not to do business with.

Liberals, who see a bigoted bogeyman lurking behind every shop door, have created this environment because they like to arm themselves with what they perceive to be their most effective weapon – an army of lawyers with itchy litigation fingers. And while liberals would most likely scoff at the militaristic metaphor, the stark reality is that when they resort to legislation and litigation to force people to act as they please, they are necessarily calling upon violence, or at least the threat of violence, to get what they want.

In a civilized society, one that reflects that maturity and refinement that liberals proclaim as their ideal, people don’t get what they want by threats of force and violence. Rather, they work to change hearts and minds through appeals to reason and humanity.

While it is true that these appeals will fall on some deaf ears, as the shameful record of segregation in America proves, it is also true that, in a free society, a functioning free market will penalize people who discriminate against others. The economics of untapped markets and unmet demand will invariably win out and entrepreneurs will eventually have to decide if the principles they base their discrimination on are important enough to lose some or all of their business.

In this case liberals are continuing their long tradition of ignoring the dual freedoms of association and choice. Just as liberals have for a long time forsaken their nineteenth century namesakes and jettisoned any real belief in property rights, so too have they done away with appeals to reason as the basis for social change.

Meanwhile, through all the arguments and emotions, libertarians continue to wonder why people on both sides feel the need to involve government in the debate at all.