What Does Reputation Have to Do With Religious Freedom?

Written by Brian Trujillo

Should there be religious exemptions to generally applicable anti-discrimination laws? I recently took a course with about 33 of my law school peers where our task was to think deeply about this question. With selections from the Professor’s manuscript and other selected readings in hand we were asked to either critique or support our Professor’s answer to this question. His position was that there should be religious exemptions to these laws but only in very specific situations and only if the religious dissenter is willing to bear the cost of carrying out his beliefs.

We were invited to speak freely during our time in class and in the final papers we would submit. Being one out of about three Christians in a room of 34 and convinced I was deemed the champion for the “evangelical cause,” I was certain I would be in the hot seat. But the situation wasn’t necessarily what I anticipated. 

The Professor, a self-proclaimed advocate of the gay-rights movement standing deep in the left, advanced the idea that religious dissenters to anti-discrimination laws should be accommodated. The class, overwhelmingly on the left (estimate of 32/34), adamantly disagreed with the Professor’s position. They seemed to push against him because he gave conservative Christians the slightest bit of leeway. They would not allow for any accommodation, even if it resulted in areas where no anti-discrimination laws would be passed in the first place.

When I signed up for the class, I was ready to have my views clash against the Professor and prepared myself to defend religious freedom, but to my surprise, our liberal Professor was actually advocating for religious freedom. Now, to be clear, he did call some religious views repugnant and in no less words say that the world would be better without them, but he was the only liberal in that room that understood the importance of protecting religious freedom. He recognized that one avenue to building bridges was to let the religious people live freely so that we can bring unity and get to work on more important issues.

This simplified my goal: to dispel negative assumptions about the Christian faith. Notice, I did not say these assumptions were unwarranted; our history has done a lot to shape the world’s perception of who Christians are. The assumptions they made about our faith were warranted because throughout history, Christians have twisted theology to conform to our intrinsically flawed human nature and have advocated for things like slavery and segregation. So, to those truly unfamiliar with the gospel, it is hard to hear that religious folk should be accommodated while not being able to test out whether their sincerely held beliefs are genuine or correct. While I do not advance that the government should be in the practice of setting what counts as orthodox or moral, I do think we as Christians have an obligation to do this via intentional cultural engagement. In other words, it became clear to me that before we can step up to the line and discuss present issues regarding religious freedom, we need to be well equipped to work against our history.

The students clashing against the Professor were also put in a very uncomfortable position. This was likely one of the few times a liberal professor was actively pushing against their own arguments. It quickly became clear to me that the students were hurting. In their eyes, it was an objective wrong to accommodate someone they were convinced carried about with a burning hate for people like them. It was hard to persuade them that Christians are called to radically love all people without fail. It did not help that the selected readings did not understand proper Christian theology.

That course gave me two things to work towards. First, show why it’s not a lie to say that we can unconditionally love the sinner while objecting to expressing affirmation for the sin they partake in–whatever the sin. And second, live and preach the gospel at all times. It became apparent that when many students think of Christianity, they think of the Westboro Baptist Church. They do not see the picture of love that you and I see.

Ironically, the biggest obstacle in that class was not the ultra-liberal scholar, but instead our “own people” who have muddied the waters and soiled the gospel. But, the truth remains: If we are to pass legislation that honors God and fight for religious freedom, we must work to overwrite the negative past of Christianity.

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