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Jesus' Advice to the 'Turn the Gays Away' Crowd: Religious Liberty Does Not Mean Discrimination

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Matthew 22:21 : "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's."

The speaker here is Jesus. And the context is a trap: In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus' opponents were trying to catch him in a contradiction between his religious beliefs, which would forbid giving tribute (tax) to Caesar, and his political obligations to give such a tribute. They hoped to ensnare him by forcing him to deny one or the other.

But Jesus acknowledged that while we may have religious beliefs and practices, we all live in two worlds: the world governed by laws, and the world that transcends them.

This is a lesson Arizona's legislature appears to have forgotten, in choosing to allow discrimination as long as the discriminator professes a religious belief. If it is sincere, it represents a new low in the misunderstanding of democracy.

The bill is nicknamed "Turn the Gays Away," but it would actually apply to just about anyone. If I'm a Christian who believes the Jews killed Christ, I can place a "No Jews Allowed" sign on my hotel. If I think Mormons are unrighteous, I can ban them from my shopping mall. And, of course, if two women sit down for lunch in my diner, I can kick them out on their abomination-committing butts.

(Incidentally, the Levitical "abomination," a mistranslation of the Hebrew word meaning "taboo," actually only applies to two men. But I digress.)

The bill's backers -- supported by millions of religious-conservative lobbying dollars, mostly from billionaires but also from charities like the Knights of Columbus -- argue that it's really about religious liberty. Indeed, they protest, the people being discriminated against are the shopkeepers and photographers whose religion prohibits them from serving gays and lesbians.

(Sorry, where does the Bible say that? I digress again.)

Let's assume for a moment these guys are sincere. I'm not sure that's true; I think many are just disgusted by homosexuality and want to make gays into second-class citizens. But I've met some of the lobbyists from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the D.C.-based think tank that helped draft the Arizona law, and The Becket Fund, the D.C.-based law firm that is litigating the same principles. Some of them do sincerely seem to believe that religion is under attack, and religious freedom is threatened.

Is it?

Here's what our social contract says. All of us are entitled to believe, and to practice, our various religions. But we can't use them to harm others. I can't beat up Christians at the shopping mall because my religion demands jihad. I can't discriminate against African Americans because my Bible says that Africans are doomed to be slaves of Europeans (Genesis 9:25).

This means that sometimes, one must render unto Caesar what is Caesar's -- in this case, public norms against discrimination. For example, if you want to enter into the public marketplace as a business, you have to play by fair, public rules -- the same rules as everyone else. If you can't play by those rules, you shouldn't be in the marketplace.

You can't have it both ways. Either every religious person gets to decide which laws to obey, in which case we're back to "No Jews Allowed" clubs and "Whites Only" hotels, or no one does. You can't exempt nice Christians who dislike homosexuality without exempting un-nice racists, anti-Semites, and anyone else who offers a religious pretext for an odious practice. So which will it be?

Obviously, no one should be exempted from the laws of fairness, and those laws apply to LGBT people as much as to anyone else. No one is saying that a church has to host a gay wedding, or that Catholics must ordain women. Religious institutions operate according to religious rules, as our constitution allows. But the free market is different. It's supposed to be a neutral, free space in which we all have our different beliefs and practices, but we don't use them to hurt anyone else.

The Supreme Court decided this in 1983, when it said the IRS was right to deny a tax exemption to a racist university. But Jesus decided it 1952 years earlier, when he refused to be caught in the trap between church and state, between God and Caesar. We live in multiple worlds, governed by different rules, he said, and we must abide by all of them. Maybe it's time we listened.