The Thin Line Between Personal Belief and Discrimination
This article was posted back in July of 2014. The lawsuit was eventually decided in favor of keeping the 911 cross. The arguments here were in play then and are still in various places across the country.
It may seem like a long reach between the controversy over gay marriage, and the lawsuit filed by atheists, demanding removal of a steel cross from the grounds of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. Yet there’s a common thread; the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
That clause states simply, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Yet either by virtue of case law, scholarly opinion or misinterpretation, the Establishment Clause is deemed to prohibit any government entity (city, county or state) from making a law that establishes an official religion, favors one religion over another, favors religion over non-religion or vice versa.
In its complaint, the group American Atheists maintained that display of the cross at the museum was unconstitutional because it is a symbol of a religion.
If that argument is taken to its logical conclusion, the display of no religious symbol is also unconstitutional as it could be argued that the non-display of a religious symbol is an indication that the government favors non-religion. The fact was never addressed that the Establishment Clause speaks directly to the role of Congress, yet Congress had absolutely nothing to do with the display or non-display of the cross.
Considering that the Establishment Clause is interpreted to forbid indications that the government favors religion or non-religion, if the basis for the atheists’ lawsuit is accepted, both the display and non-display of religious symbols are unconstitutional. Consequently, had the atheist group been successful in its suit, non-atheist groups could have rightfully filed their own lawsuits, claiming that removal of the cross, and replacement with no symbol, was essentially the display of a symbol of non-religion.
The concept of interpreting the non-display of a religious symbol as the display of a symbol of non-religion is admittedly convoluted. Yet it directly addresses the conflict of classifying a religious symbol as a violation of the Establishment Clause while denying that the non-display of a religious symbol (i.e. a symbol of non-religion) is also a violation.
A thin line
That same conundrum also applies to the current controversy over gay rights. By forcing owners of a business to engage in a transaction that they find an affront to their (Christian) religious beliefs, the government is essentially mandating conformance with an alternate religion or a non-religion.
Liberals are attempting to portray religious objection to gay marriage as an excuse to legitimize discrimination. And, in some cases, that may be the case. However, government’s role is not to force independent business owners to violate their personal beliefs. The line between a discriminatory business practice and a business owner refusing to personally provide a specific service may be a thin one, but the landscape is decidedly different on each side.
An outright refusal to do business with a person based on race, sexual orientation or ethnic background falls firmly on the side of discrimination. Refusing to be on site, at an event that involves activities in conflict with personal beliefs falls outside the realm of discrimination.