Angel of Equality, Thomas Jefferson Monument  elycefeliz/Flickr (CC)


Last week Spiked, the British libertarian organisation, co-sponsored a conference on liberty in Washington DC, together with the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Acton Institute. On its website Spiked said:

In Europe and America, liberty is not in good shape. Hate-speech laws continue to proliferate; universities are beset by campus speech codes; the religious are told that their faith is discriminatory; and the press is besieged by the easily offended. Fundamental freedoms are everywhere under threat. spiked is not prepared to take the assault on our freedoms lying down.

Highlighting the US Constitution’s First Amendment, the half-day conference consisted of three panels dealing with, in turn, freedom of speech on college campuses and beyond; press freedom after Charlie Hebdo; and freedom of religion.

The (all American) religious liberty panel consisted of Rev. Robert A. Sirico, co-founder of the Acton Institute; Gregory S. Baylor, senior counsel with the (Christian) Alliance Defending Freedom; Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and an ex-board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, now serving on the Secular Coalition for America’s advisory board; and Edwina Rogers, CEO of the Secular Policy Institute.

The conference was live-streamed and MercatorNet tuned into the religious liberty session, in which the main point of difference was whether religious liberty, in the US at least, is protected too much or not enough. Subsequently the ADF’s Gregory Baylor agreed to answer a few questions about the discussion.

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MercatorNet: This forum, bringing together people with contrasting views on issues like gay marriage and abortion, seems a positive move. Do you think it enabled a genuine dialogue?

Gregory Baylor: The panel in which I participated included genuine dialogue about controversial issues.

M: Was there anything that everyone agreed on? Could the area of agreement be expanded do you think?

GB: There was a consensus that everyone should have the right to their beliefs.  There was less agreement about the extent to which government should not interfere in religiously motivated actions.

M: What are the main concerns of the other side (so to speak)?

GB: Those who would punish religious dissenters from the new sexual orthodoxy argue that such punishment is necessary to prevent offense and psychological injury.  They would argue that a feeling of dignity is not possible if others are unwilling to celebrate sexual practices long deemed immoral.

M: You and your colleagues at ADF have been involved in the litigation of many religious liberty cases. Could you mention the more significant ones in terms of the current public debate?

GB: ADF represents Barronelle Stutzman, a florist who declined for reasons of conscience to participate in and help celebrate a same-sex wedding. ADF also represents a number of Christian organizations challenging the federal government’s requirement that they provide employees free abortifacients in their health plans. ADF represent former Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran, who was fired because he wrote a book that briefly included his religious views on marriage and homosexual behavior.

M: What are your main concerns arising from these cases?

GB: Government should not compel people to violate their consciences absent extraordinary justifications.  Americans of all faiths shouldn’t be required to abandon their convictions when they enter the public square or the marketplace.  These controversies are a foretaste of a more radical effort to punish and marginalize individuals and organizations that hold traditional views on marriage and human sexuality.

M: Did the secularists or civil liberties panellists agree that the Christians involved had been unfairly or unjustly treated?

GB: No, not every panellist agreed that the Christians involved in these disputes had been treated unjustly.

M: Is a conflict between religious liberty and civil rights inevitable? Why is it happening today?

GB: Religious liberty is itself a civil right. Conflict is not inevitable; we can craft rules that respect religious conscience and freedom of expression.  Conflicts are happening today because some proponents of the new sexual orthodoxy seek to punish their cultural opponents without any sense of proportion or balance.

M: The historic racial question in the US continues to appear in debates. Is this a big obstacle to dialogue?

GB: Too many advocates of the new orthodoxy contend that those who hold traditional views on marriage and sexuality are the moral equivalent of racists.  Such unfounded, unfair, and ahistorical slander is not a good starting point for a dialogue about how we can live together with our deepest differences.

M: Someone in the panel session suggested that we just have to learn to live with things we don’t like – and, by implication, not expect the law to protect us from all hurt or discrimination. Is that a way forward? Or do we need laws that specifically protect conscience?

GB: In many instances, laws are being used to suppress dissent and punish those who cause offense.  The law shouldn’t strive to protect everyone from anything that might offend them.  Laws should reflect a sensible balance between competing interests.  But laws specifically protecting conscience are also necessary.

M: What else needs to be done?

GB: The general public needs to know more about the growing assaults on religious conscience, and urge their elected officials to protect conscience.  We need to restore sanity and common sense to the mechanisms by which we resolve conflicts involving religious freedom.

Gregory S Baylor serves as senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom. Baylor previously served as director with the Christian Legal Society Center for Law & Religious Freedom. Baylor has been admitted to the US Supreme Court; the US Courts of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Texas.