We Have a Religious Right to Be a Bigot

04/06/2015 10:49 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

"In Indiana, Using Religion as a Cover for Bigotry," an editorial in the March 31 New York Times, reminded me of a line by Captain Renault in the movie Casablanca as he accepted a bribe: "I'm shocked, shocked to learn that gambling is going on in here." I'm also reminded of lyrics in "National Brotherhood Week," Tom Lehrer's satirical song: "The Protestants hate the Catholics, and the Catholics hate the Protestants, and the Hindus hate the Muslims, and everybody hates the Jews." Conclusion: Religious bigotry is as old as religion, itself.

Although it might not ring as true as in previous generations, religious hate is protected by freedom of religion. We have the right to hate anyone, but not the right to commit crimes. It's OK to hate gays, but not to kill them. Perhaps that's why Bob Jones III, former president of Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian institution in my home state of South Carolina, recently apologized for his 1980 remark that we should follow the biblical injunction of stoning gays to death.

Religious freedom gives us the right to worship as we choose -- or not worship at all. Religious leaders are free to preach that I will suffer an eternity in hell because I'm an atheist. Religions may make rules about whether to sanction same sex or mixed race marriages, whether women are permitted to sit next to men in their houses of worship, who to shun for not appropriately following rituals or doctrine, who to admit as members, and who to excommunicate. Members who disagree with church doctrine are free to leave, as millions have done and continue to do.

What role should the government play regarding religious freedom? Government may not favor one religion over another or religion over non-religion. Religious freedom includes the right to be free from people imposing their religious views on the public through discrimination in employment, housing, education and public accommodations.

If the only argument for a public policy is that a person's religious doctrine says it's bad, why should such a policy apply to everyone? We are a secular country with secular laws that apply to all citizens.

Equal treatment under the law is not a radical idea. Same-sex couples should have the same rights, benefits and protections as opposite-sex couples. Some give biblical justification that marriage should be between a man and a woman, just as a few generations ago they gave biblical justification that marriage should be between members of the same race. I could just as easily give biblical justification for marriage being between a man and no more than 700 women (I Kings 11:3). Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines, which shows that his brain was not his most active organ. Those who wish to make civil laws compatible with a particular interpretation of a so-called holy book might think about moving to one of the many theocratic countries.

Numerous controversies have raged over what constitutes a religion, often because the government favors religious institutions in so many ways, including through tax breaks. See, for instance, the recent HBO documentary about Scientology, Going Clear. I've heard religion defined as a sincerely held non-rational (i.e., faith based) belief. So why should our government privilege irrational beliefs over rational beliefs? If the government offers an exemption from a law because of religious belief, I think that same exemption should be available for conscientious belief, as in the case where the Supreme Court ruled in favor of an atheist conscientious objector to war.

Special treatment for religion defeats society's promotion of the general welfare. Neither religious nor non-religious people can invoke conscience to avoid paying taxes. A pharmacist should be required to dispense prescriptions regardless of religious beliefs, just as a supermarket cashier must check out meat products even though eating animal flesh goes against her vegan beliefs.

I see no reason why freedom of religion deserves to be privileged over freedom of conscience, and I'd be happy to consider arguments for why it should. Your turn.