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Minnesota has a religious freedom law

David Strom//April 3, 2015

Minnesota has a religious freedom law

David Strom//April 3, 2015

Minnesota has a law that protects freedom of religion and conscience, and it is called the Minnesota Constitution.

Article I, Section 16 of the state’s constitution is pretty comprehensive, both protecting an individual’s freedom of conscience on the one hand, and everybody’s right to be immune to others’ attempts to make them support or pay for their religious views. The entire section deals with the balance between freedom of and freedom from religion, but the most relevant passage is “nor shall any control of or interference with the rights of conscience be permitted.”

It’s not hard to see why freedom of religion and conscience plays such a strong role in the U.S. and Minnesota constitutions: The first European settlers were fleeing religious persecution in their home countries, and successive waves of immigrants have fled to the U.S. in order to be free to believe and practice their faiths. An entire state — Maryland — was colonized to provide a haven for persecuted Catholics. And of course the Puritans risked death on the Atlantic in order to practice their unpopular faith.

The founders of our country and our state understood the necessity of protecting the rights of conscience and religion. Wars, persecutions, pogroms, and in the 20th century genocide have all been driven by religious tensions. In the Soviet Union and other communist countries race, religion and differences in beliefs have all been excuses for imprisonment and execution.

People fight about the things that matter most to them, and few things matter more to us than religious and moral principles. The founders believed, rightly, that creating as much buffer space for individual beliefs was the best way to preserve the peace. It doesn’t always work, but nothing ever does in human affairs, does it?

The current battle over the preservation of religious and conscience rights in state laws is just another front in the culture war, and has nothing to do with wrongs against people who might be discriminated against. In fact, the minority in need of protection against public backlash are the small shop owners who are facing fines, lawsuits, and the full force of a mobilized public backlash against them.

They are, in fact, exactly the same as the Puritans, Quakers, Catholics and Amish who fled to America in need of a haven for their unpopular religious beliefs.

Despite all the moralistic harrumphing, nobody seriously believes that anyone choosing to get married would have any trouble finding an excellent baker, florist, or photographer who would fall over themselves to help them. Evangelicals or devout Catholics who would rather not do so out of religious conviction are a tiny minority, and are easily avoided. They are, in a real sense, the isolated dissenters from an overwhelming cultural transformation that has swept this country in the past decade. In 2008 Barack Obama campaigned and was elected opposing gay marriage citing his religious convictions; today, people who still take that position are outcasts, bigots, and subject to losing their livelihoods.

The problem these individuals face today is that they are dissenters from the prevailing cultural attitudes, and especially those of the cultural elites. And unfortunately, the people who are at the heights of the culture — who dominate entertainment, education, the news media, and the bigger corporations — feel the need to crush that dissent.

The threat that an individual florist, baker, wedding planner, or restaurateur present to the freedom of others is vanishingly small. The threat to their ability to make a living if they hold to their conscience is not only real, but being carried out.

Ironically, the crusaders against religious and conscience protections clearly don’t believe in the principle that they are trying to vindicate: that everybody should be forced to do business with people with whom they have moral disagreements.

As loudly they protest that religion and conscience are purely private and have no place in the market, they surely don’t act like they believe that principle. In fact, some of the loudest protesters against Indiana’s passage of a religious freedom law have taken to boycotting the state. They are refusing to do business with people because of their moral convictions.

In other words, they have chosen to take their business elsewhere because their conscience demands it. More power to them, I say. Perhaps they could do the courtesy of allowing others the same freedom?

It is not the principle of keeping morality out of the public square for which they are fighting; it is the principle that nobody should be allowed to dissent from their views, and the full weight of state power should be used to force dissenters into line.

That is utterly at odds with both American law and American tradition.

Today, people at the commanding heights of the economy and culture cannot abide the idea that an occasional small businessperson should dissent from the prevailing culture, and have determined that they must be brought to heel.

There is a word for that, but it isn’t tolerance. The moral victory achieved by the gay rights movement is being sullied by the victors: their attacks on the defeated are every bit as antagonistic, vile, and intolerant as any that were directed at them in earlier times. These activists have become in a real sense, haters. Just read what they say about and do to those who offend their sensibilities.

I may be old-fashioned, but I think the framers of the American and Minnesota constitutions got it right.

David Strom is principal of Think-Write-Do, a public affairs consulting firm. 

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