David Brooks is Dead Wrong About the RFRA

Recently, the Post-Gazette ran a column by David Brooks that was really irritating. (It was probably a reprint of a column that ran in the NY Times the day before, so some of you may have seen it there.) Brooks is one of the few conservative pundits that I actually respect, and frequently find myself agreeing with. His commentary on the PBS Newshour’s Shields and Brooks segment is often interesting and nuanced and quite reasonable.

Unfortunately though, whenever the opportunity presents itself he often insists (as in this column), on showing complete deference to religion and giving the religious a pass to shove their nonsense down rational people’s throat. This column was about Indiana’s License to Hurt and Discriminate law that was signed by Indiana’s Governor Mike Pence and the subsequent outcry that this caused. Because of the furor, Pence and the Republican leadership in Indiana put on a full court press to try to deny that the legislation was discriminatory and anti-gay and ultimately amended the bill. They are being thoroughly disingenuous. Make no mistake – this law was intended to hurt and legalize discrimination against the LGBT community, as are most of the recent iterations of this law in other states. How do we know this? If you look at photos of the bill’s signing – not the officially released PR photo but the photos from the private celebration – you find directly behind the governor three of the most vicious and most aggressive anti-gay activists in the state – Curt Smith, Eric Miller, and Micah Clark. (Micah Clark, it should be noted is part of the American Family Association, an organization that has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.)

The main thrust of Brooks argument is that we need to show deference to people’s religious sensibilities and take them into account when dealing with controversial issues. But he is dead wrong. While we do need to respect the rights of everyone to have their faith, to believe whatever irrational nonsense they wish to believe, we are under no obligation whatsoever to respect the beliefs themselves. As the Campaign For Free Expression has said, “Ideas don’t need rights – people do.” Brooks is not alone in this – conflating respect for people with respect for beliefs themselves is a common mistake that religionists almost always make when dealing with the topic of religious rights.

All religions are based on ancient mythology that was used to explain the natural world and to provide a framework of rules to establish a (sorta) just and harmonious society. (The exceptions, of course, are those religions based on 19th century cons or twentieth century tax dodges.) But as western society has evolved and gone through The Enlightenment, the need for these mythologies has diminished to a point of nonexistence in the 21st century.

Because these are mythologies or based in mythology, they have no credible evidence to support them and therefore have no basis in reality. And since they have no basis in reality, the resultant pronouncements of these fairy tales have no legitimate place in the formulation or implementation of public policy in a secular society founded, as the U. S. was, on Enlightenment values. For that matter, I have to question whether these have any legitimacy anywhere in the public square.

Even if we concede (and I absolutely do not) that these irrational, often demonstrably false beliefs deserve to be taken into consideration, Brooks argues that we need to use gentle persuasion to convince the delusional people to be decent human beings rather than using the force of government edict as a hammer to protect minority rights. That might be a viable argument if the delusionals had the capacity or intent to be fair and tolerant and respectful of others’ rights. But they don’t. A letter to the editor two days after Brooks’ column was published very clearly stated that the letter writer had no intention of ever respecting the rights of LGBT people. And in Texas, an effort by several legislators to amend Texas’ 1999 RFRA law to make it even more discriminatory is underway, although after the Indiana debacle it looks like that will be rebuffed.

It is time, once and for all, to get religion out of public policy. We need to make it completely clear to the delusionals that their fairy tales, for which they have no evidentiary support and that have no basis in reality, and the mean-spirited intolerant nonsense that flows from those fairy tales, has no legitimate place whatsoever in the public policy arena. And if that message needs to be sent with a government hammer to be understood, then so be it.

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