Sunday, September 18, 2011

Can the First Amendment Protect Discrimination?

The government of Illinois has recently decided to enact a law that legalizes civil unions.  This law will present same sex couples with many of the legal rights that married couples enjoy.  Though the Illinois government has decided to accept civil unions, there are still many people who continue to discriminate against homosexuality in the state. 

Todd and Mark Wathen, a homosexual couple from Illinois, desired to have their civil union ceremony at a Bed and Breakfast in central Illinois.  After being rejected by the Beall Mansion Bead and Breakfast, they decided to ask another establishment, Timber Creak, to hold their ceremony.  Timber Creak responded to their request by saying that they will never hold a same-sex civil union because they believe, “homosexuality is wrong and unnatural based on what the Bible says about it.”  After receiving this refusal, the couple has decided to sue both establishments for violating their civil rights.  The business owners think that it is within their rights protected by the First Amendment, the freedom to practice religion, to discriminate based on their beliefs, but when religious freedom conflicts with the civil rights of others, one of these freedoms must suffer.

This suit will focus on the extent that the Free Exercise Clause allows for the violation of the civil rights of others.  The shop owners believe that since their religion teaches that homosexuality is wrong, they have the right to deny civil unions to same-sex couples.  Though the owners may have religious reasons to not allow civil unions on their property, they are clearly violating the rights of homosexuals.  They are trying to legitimize their discrimination based off of their religious beliefs, but allowing religion to protect discrimination is a dangerous arena that could lead to some ugly situations.  The civil rights of homosexuals must be protected, even if it means limiting others’ freedom to practice religion.

In the case Cantwell v. Connecticut, an important distinction was made between the freedom to believe, and the freedom to practice religion. Justice Roberts wrote that the freedom to believe is an “absolute” freedom that the government cannot limit, but the freedom to practice, “in the nature of things…cannot be” absolute.  Many cases have reaffirmed that in certain situations the government may limit peoples rights to exercise their religion.  The major question now becomes, when can a government interfere with the free practice of religion.

In the case West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, the justices focus on how far the freedom to exercise religion, protects religious actions.  An important part of this case is how the court decides if an action is protected or not.  The court must look to see if the action infringes on the “rights asserted by any other individual.”   By denying same-sex civil unions, the actions of the owners are limiting the civil rights of homosexuals protected by the 14th amendment.  Since the rights of others are being violated by these actions, the court has the right to limit the owner’s freedom to practice their religion.

Though forcing the owners of the Bed and Breakfast establishments to hold civil unions would be violating their freedom to exercise religion, when actions conflict with the rights of others they cannot be allowed.  There is a thin line that determines when a religious action can or cannot be limited by the state, but discrimination certainly should be prevented at all costs.  We cannot allow discrimination to be practiced, and if protecting against it means limiting others’ freedom to practice religion, then freedom of religion must suffer.

If discrimination based off of sexuality can be protected, then what’s to stop discrimination due to race, ethnicity, or even... religion?  Protecting the owner’s actions under the 1st amendment would technically legalize discrimination.  If this discrimination was practiced against people due to their religion, well that would just be protecting one persons' right to practice, which in turn, would limit another's.  The courts must side against the owner’s freedom to practice religion in this case, but by doing so they will be protecting the civil rights of many others.

1 comment:

Harry R. said...

I agree with Casey that this dispute focuses on the constitutional rights of two groups conflicting with the other group's rights. The reasoning that judgment for the bed and breakfasts may set a dangerous precedent of using religious beliefs as support for discrimination is valid. The similar case involving the Methodist camp in New Jersey was ruled against the camp. In that instance, the group involved was clearly a religious group, while the bed and breakfasts in this case are not. Therefore, if the Methodist camp lost their case, this case seems to have even less support for the defendants.