Amidst the fireworks, picnics, and parades, the upcoming Fourth of July holiday gives us an opportunity to reflect on the truly radical direction our country’s founders took 233 years ago. The right to freely practice one’s religion of choice was near the top of the priority list for the American revolutionaries.
The founders understood what it meant to be persecuted for one’s beliefs. In the First Amendment protection for religious liberty, James Madison, one of the key authors of our Constitution, intended “to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries.”
Fast forward to today, 233 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and 222 years after the final drafting of our Constitution. Today the great debate over religious liberty continues to rage. There is a constant struggle over where to draw the line between religious freedom and other civil rights, including reproductive healthcare for women and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people, and many organizations claim to advocate for religious liberty.
That’s why it was so shocking to hear Randall Wenger, Chief Counsel for the Pennsylvania Family Institute (PFI), tell a statewide audience on Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN) that religion should not be a protected class under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), the commonwealth’s non-discrimination law. On PCN’s Call-In Show on May 28, Mr. Wenger stated, “I think that we should be prepared to take a new look at this law, and I don’t think that religion needs the protection of government in order to survive.”
Mr. Wenger was on TV to demonstrate his opposition to House Bill 300, which would amend the PHRA to include protections on the bases of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression when he made this statement to a statewide viewing audience.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania vigorously disagrees with Mr. Wenger’s position. And one can’t help but question whether or not his employers at the Family Institute agree. (He did state on the show that this opinion was his own and not necessarily that of PFI.)
We cannot ignore that our country has a history of religious discrimination. Decades ago, Catholics were often the target of ire for hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan. It was a big deal when the country elected John F. Kennedy in 1960, our first (and only) Catholic president.
Discrimination against Jewish Americans has occurred throughout our history, even to this day. In 2005, the ACLU of Delaware defended a Jewish family that faced down a belligerent school board and community. When the family’s oldest child graduated in 2004 as the only Jewish student in her class, a Christian pastor prayed at her graduation “for one specific student” and asked God “be with her and guide her in the path that You have for her. And we ask all these things in Jesus’ name.” At a school board meeting, the daughter read a statement on behalf of her younger brother, who said, “I feel bad when kids in my class call me Jew boy.” Residents in attendance at the meeting told the boy, who was in sixth grade at the time, to “take your yarmulke off.”
Law-abiding, peaceful Muslim Americans face hostility on a regular basis. Even some members of the state House of Representatives have shown open hostility towards Muslims. Last year, a simple House resolution to thank a Muslim group for holding their national convention in Pennsylvania never got a vote because, according to one state representative, Muslims don’t believe that Jesus Christ is God.
There can be little doubt that this existing tension over religion translates into discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodation. In 1955, Pennsylvania’s lawmakers recognized the need to protect Pennsylvanians from this form of discrimination and passed the PHRA.
Our leaders were right to ensure that people are not denied a job or a home simply based on their religious belief. James Madison was right to strive to stem the bloody religious strife of Europe from touching the United States. And the ACLU will continue to defend the precious right to freely express one’s beliefs, free of government entanglement and free from discrimination.
Andy in Harrisburg