On Competing Freedoms

We’re activists.  What we do is right there in that label:  act.  But, I’ve found over the last few weeks that sometimes we need to reflect on the choices we’ve made, the causes we’ve stood for, and reassess where we stand today.

I also write at the Wild Garden blog on Patheos’s Pagan channel, and as a part of being an author on Patheos, we sometimes get the opportunity to review books hot off the presses.  I’ll be posting a full review of the book I’m reading now later this week, but I wanted to touch on something the author has made me think deeply about as I’ve worked through his words.

The author, Os Guinness, is often critical of limitations placed on one freedom in order to provide another.  Whether it is a limitation on our free-exercise of religion in favor of free speech or restrictions on our ability to assemble and associate when balanced against a real or perceived threat, Guinness has forced me to think critically not just about how we act and when but also why.

The recently decided case in New Mexico regarding a private photography business, owned an operated by Christians, that refused to photograph a same-sex couple’s commitment ceremony in 2006 has me reflecting on the nature of competing freedoms.  In that case, it was decided (appropriately, in my opinion) that the photography business, which refused service to the same-sex couple because of their sexual orientation, had violated the law and was forced to pay a fine.  Further it was made clear that they, and other businesses run by those with similar points of view, can no longer refuse service to others based on sexual orientation.

Even Guinness (jumping back to the book) recognizes that the free-exercise of one’s faith stops when that exercise infringes on others.  In his terms, “[Freedom of thought, consciousness, religion, and belief] is absolute at the point of belief but qualified at the point of behavior, because behavior touches other people and other things” (p. 70).

In our American experience, we’ve seen the religion used to justify slavery, the plans of Almighty God used to defend laws prohibiting interracial marriage, and more recently that religious freedom enshrines the right of some to deny the rights of others, as in the New Mexico case described above, but also in others like an anti-bullying law in Louisiana, for example.

I have sympathy for these views.  I don’t agree with them, but I understand the desire to try to struggle against uncomfortable change.  Especially when those changes touch us at our very core, as our religions regularly do.  That said, we have seen great changes, even within Christianity, with respect to GLBT rights.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, elected their first openly gay bishop this past June.  Granted, in so doing, members of the church opposing this act split to form the North American Lutheran Church, but they were free to do so.

I suspect that in a few decades the cultures wars over GLBT rights will seem as distant as the fight for interracial marriage in the 60’s seems to us now.  Undoubtedly, we’ll be fighting a different battle in the decades hence and I’m certain that this or that group will try to use their religious identity, and their freedom to exercise that religion, to influence the decision one way or another.

As activists, we act.  But, we must do so compassionately and with the understanding that our successes necessitate others’ failures.  It behooves us to understand that loss and to be prepared to suffer those loses ourselves (e.g. the recent overturning of section 4 of the voting rights act by the Supreme Court).  But, in the words of Theodore Parker, a 19th century Unitarian minister:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. […] But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

On a different topic, I’m pleased to follow-up on my earlier article regarding bees.  The Environmental Protection Agency has taken steps — exceptionally small though they may be — to try to combat the use of pesticides containing neonicotinoids.

Unfortunately, all they’ve done is to develop new warning labels regarding the use of these chemicals, but activists, like Friends of the Earth, have taken this opportunity to send letters containing over 175,000 signatures to stores like Lowe’s,Home Depot, and Target urging them to cease the sale of such products.

Further, the state of Oregon, has temporarily banned the use of some of these chemicals as they investigate the cause of a die-off of over 50,000 bees.  It’s a shame that this ban is only temporary, but still the investigation is being done and, with luck, things will go our way.