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Earlier this month, the US Commission on Civil Rights issued its report Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties. The report, which was occasioned in part by the same-sex marriage debate, tries to determine the correct relationship between antidiscrimination laws and the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion. Currently, persons of religious faith have been legally charged with discrimination under state antidiscrimination laws for refusing to provide their individualized services to same-sex couples because they sincerely believe that marriage is a relationship existing only between one man and one woman. The question is: should they be granted a religious exemption?
The report’s title, Peaceful Coexistence, conveys, perhaps unintentionally, a grim social reality in the United States. Historically, of course, it described the uneasy relationship between the US and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. In that context, the phrase described how two nations, organized under radically different principles, could avoid the dangers of mutual annihilation through nuclear warfare.
One would hope that the stakes would be lower in this domestic debate, but judging from some of the rhetoric surrounding the issue, they are not. The Chairman of the USCCR, Martin Castro, recently commented publicly that “The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ . . . remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy, or any form of intolerance.” And there are powerful echoes of that position in a statement by five of the commissioners—Castro, joined by Roberta Achtenberg, David Kladney, Karen Narasaki, and Michael Yaki—who write: “These laws”—which seek exceptions to the antidiscrimination laws—“represent an orchestrated, nationwide effort by extremists to promote bigotry, cloaked in the mantle of ‘religious freedom.’”