by David Giffin
This past week, William Haun published an article at Public Discourse that discusses the current political and philosophical trends regarding religious freedom in the United States. Haun observes in his piece that over the past several years, religious liberty claims have fallen under increasing political scrutiny. Philosophically, he attributes this to the increasing number of political figures who have begun to adopt a very Rousseau-esque view of religion in public life: religion is a private affair that you can practice in your church or in your home, but when you step outside those confines your beliefs are secondary to the rules set forward by the government and the society at large.
In hindsight, it’s kind of funny that this article popped up just a week before the Supreme Court released its latest batch of cases, most notably the case of United States v Windsor. What, you might ask, does this have to do with religious liberties? Let’s take a closer look at Windsor and see.
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The LGBT community hailed last week’s Supreme Court decision in Windsor as a victory, and with good reason. By ruling that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, the Court paved the way for legally married gay couples across the United States to partake in federal benefits and protections that they had previously been disqualified from receiving.
Predictably, many in the religious community were not as pleased by the Court’s decision. And many at this point have correctly commented that the decision really doesn’t change marriage laws beyond the issue of federal benefits – Section 2 of DOMA still upholds the right of states to recognize or not recognize same-sex marriages. However, the language that Justice Roberts used might raise a few eyebrows about the future state of religious liberties in relation to the decision.
The opinion goes to great lengths to recount the history of DOMA, a law that was clearly constructed to defend traditional moral and religious views on marriage. Roberts also appeals at several points to a somewhat nebulous standard of human dignity in writing the opinion. One line stuck out at me as exemplary of how this standard of dignity was applied: “What has been explained to this point should more than suffice to establish that the principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law [DOMA] are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage” (Windsor, 25). (Some other popularized quotes can be found here.)
Taken in concert, the implied reading seems to suggest that laws such as DOMA, the reasoning goes, are born out of religiously motivated notions of morality. Such laws – and, by extension, the norms they were born from – serve no other purpose but to diminish same-sex couples and give their relationships a secondary status in society. Even a positive reading, which Roberts sought to include in the opinion, still creates a hierarchy of values: rather than emphasizing balance, Roberts describes gay rights efforts as “a new perspective, a new insight” that somehow has achieved cultural ascendancy over and above more traditional religious values.
Read the rest at THE PARKING LOT.