Discriminating Religious Practice

John Muenzberg

Column by John Muenzberg, Lecturer of philosophy

This summer Kim Davis, the county clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, has attracted national attention for her refusal to issue marriage licenses. While she refused to issue licenses to any couple, she stated that her refusal was due to a religious objection to same-sex marriage. Yet having a religious objection does not automatically allow someone to refuse to fulfill the requirements of one’s job. In fact, when it comes to discrimination, the courts specifically forbid such exemptions.

It is reasonable to most people that workers should not be forced to do things that they object to. In some cases U.S. law agrees with this attitude.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1972 prohibit employment discrimination based on race, religion, national origin or sex. One should not fear reprisals, or loss of employment, just because one practices a certain religion. In addition, the courts have held that reasonable accommodation must be given to employees to practice their religion. If an employee’s religion prohibits work on certain days, or requires wearing certain clothes, the courts have generally required that the employer accommodate them.

The accommodation must be “reasonable,” which is generally interpreted as not being too disruptive or expensive. An employee who refuses to work on Saturday due to religious observance may be required to work on Sunday instead. This is a reasonable accommodation.

Even further than this, the courts have made broad exceptions for religious organizations, such as a church or religious school. It is illegal for a private company to refuse to hire women, but a religiously operated organization is allowed to discriminate in certain cases. To require a Roman Catholic church to hire women priests is interpreted as preventing them from practicing Christianity. This exemption is why churches cannot be forced to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies.

But the courts often reject such accommodation if there is harm to other people. After Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Jerry Falwell argued that the cases violated God’s word concerning intermixing the races. The Daughters of the American Revolution argued that racial purity was a fundamental Christian principle. These religious objections were rejected because the Civil Rights Act was enacted to prevent people from treating some citizens as unequal. To allow for such exemptions would undermine the very point of the law.

Kim Davis’ refusal to issue licenses clearly causes harm to couples who wish to get married. She also initially refused the reasonable accommodation of letting the deputy county clerks issue the licenses in her stead. This is why the courts refused to stay the order to issue licenses, and why she was found in contempt when she ignored the judge’s order.

Her last appeal would seem to be to Kentucky’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which specifically includes public officials in laws concerning religious accommodation. But this is unlikely to succeed since public officials refusing to carry out legislative action due to personal beliefs undermines the laws. That would result in discrimination. It would allow discrimination based on not only on sexual orientation but also on race and gender. And we have come too far as a society to regress to that level.

People are allowed to believe different things. They are often given accommodation for their beliefs, even by their employers. But they are not allowed to harm others because of their beliefs. And they are not allowed to assert any and every moral belief as a religious practice.