Introduced into the Colorado Legislature on Feb. 2, House Bill 1180 is officially titled, “Concerning a person’s free exercise of religion.” Were there truth in labeling rules for the General Assembly, it would more properly be called something like the “Protecting gay bashing as a right.” While dolled up as a high-minded defense of expressions of faith, it is meant only to legally protect hate-based discrimination.
The bill’s summary describes it as saying “that no state action may burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if that burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless it is demonstrated that applying the burden to a person’s exercise of religion is essential to further a compelling government interest. ...”
What might that mean? The state of Colorado has no interest whatsoever in compelling anyone to eat pork, drink alcohol or sleep with someone else’s spouse. No one can make anyone tithe, pray, sing hymns or take communion, but no official will ever try to stop any of those either. Abortion is legal, but never required. And while your employer might ask you to work on the Sabbath, there is no state law that mandates it.
So what free exercise of religion is this meant to protect? Again, from the bill’s summary, “The bill specifies that exercise of religion includes the ability to act or refuse to act in a manner substantially motivated by a person’s sincerely held religious beliefs ... except that it does not include the ability to act or refuse to act based on race or ethnicity.”
What is obviously missing from that is any mention of sexual orientation. And given that discriminating on that basis is about the only form of “religious expression” that the state might frown upon, that is pretty clearly what HB 1180 is all about.
The problem, of course, is that this bill represents a complete misconstrual of religious freedom. The First Amendment says the government may not tell its citizens what, if any, religion they must practice, how they should comport themselves in matters of faith or what they can believe.
It does not, however, afford anyone the right to impose their beliefs on others.
HB 1180, however, is clearly meant to allow just that. The exclusion of actions “based on race or ethnicity” gives that away.
Not that long ago, some churches were overtly racist. Some faiths even had racial discrimination as an official part of their doctrine. Now, though, few would argue that laws banning racial discrimination violate anyone’s religious freedom. On the contrary, racial discrimination is seen, not as a protected expression of religious belief but as antithetical to freedom.
Critics of HB 1180 point to its loose construction and argue that it could also lead to claims of “religious” exemptions to all sorts of laws. And that may be. But honest objections on moral grounds have been tried with little success over military service, paying taxes in wartime and peyote in Native American ceremonies. Specious claims have fared no better.
Take HB 1180 for what it is. The bill’s sponsors – unfortunately including state Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio – would rationalize and legalize discrimination based on sexual orientation by calling it religious expression. But call it what they will, it is still wrong.
The Legislature should swiftly kill HB 1180.