At the request of students from Adrian College, I was asked to speak at a protest on the Capitol steps in Lansing in opposition to the proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act (HB 5958) on December 16, 2014 during the waning days of the lame duck session of the Michigan legislature. The following are my comments (you may also see a video here, or listen to an mp3 version here).
And now we hear a new claim. With House Bill 5958, our legislators tell us, “Government must not burden people and businesses when choosing to exercise their religious beliefs, regardless of the consequences of that action on others.” Convincing us of the sincerity of such statements, especially given their inherent contradictions and the tremendous potential for and mischief by those taking advantage of such claims as these, presents a daunting challenge.
And because the task raises such difficulties, they must call on the greatest authorities to lend credence to their arguments. So, you hear many politicians today referring to the founders of this great nation. They quote Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and others as proof of the righteousness of their cause.
They carefully sift through mountains of books to find just the right quote – even if they must take that quote completely out of context. When the founders stood mute on a subject, they tell us what the founders were really thinking. When those tactics fall short, they shout words like “Freedom!” and “Liberty!” confident that they can rely on our patriotism and our trust in the democratic process that they act in our best interests.
And when all else fails, they wait until the dead of night. They skulk in the shadows of the halls of government until after the electorate has spoken. They wait until the time when everyone looks forward to family gatherings and singing joyous praises.
Then, they slink from behind their desks. They quietly announce a hearing – or bypass the process of a public hearing altogether – and pass whatever laws please them. They do this because they know, were it not for the distractions of the holidays and our everyday lives, we might hold up our hands and say, “Wait a minute…I don’t understand what purpose this proposed bill serves.” After months of hibernation, they race through the lame duck session because they are afraid that we might have the time to read proposed bills and share our opinions. They feverishly plunge through this window because it is too late for us to voice our discontent at the ballot box with politicians whose terms will end shortly.
Perhaps the legislatures populated by our founders operated with a similar lack of transparency. But, I doubt it. It was Thomas Paine, who wrote in his landmark work Common Sense that the faithfulness of those elected to serve in public office “will be secured by the prudent reflection of not making a rod for themselves.” In other words, our elected officials should not rule over us like tyrants, but should engage with us in dialogue and informed debate.
Later, Paine specifically talks about the nature of America. “This new world,” he writes, “hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster…” So clearly, Paine would not have dreamed of a legislature using the tactics of a tyrant to pass laws abridging the rights of those who fear religious persecution.
Our ancestors came to this land because people used religious beliefs to hurt, to imprison, and even to kill them. I understand the corruption of religion by those who wield it as a rod to punish others. My grandmother Theresa fled her home in Europe for committing the sin of divorcing her abusive husband. For this act of self-preservation, the church deemed her unworthy and excommunicated her – a punishment that meant death; for she was now shunned by employers, shop owners, and landlords. Staying meant homelessness and starvation because she believed in her right to live free.
My grandmother met the man who became my grandfather here in America. He, too, had fled Europe because the Serbian army would routinely cross the river into his hometown and conscript young men to fight the never-ending religious conflict in the Balkans. No matter how many times the military dragged him to kill people who believed in God differently, he defected and returned home.
A century later, people still die in that region because of their religious beliefs. Governments that claim to fight for independence, for self-rule, for self-determination, use that fight as an excuse to rape and murder those who are different. A simple carpenter, my grandfather understood the corruption of freedom by those wielding it as a rod to kill others. So, he made the perilous journey here to America, where he could believe freely.
After years of struggle, my grandparents raised a family. My father honored his parents and cared for them in their later years. After my grandmother died, my grandfather’s life became simple again. He would sit at the kitchen table drinking coffee and playing solitaire all day. He believed he would soon rejoin his beloved Theresa in Heaven and was content to await his death patiently.
One night, my parents hosted a prayer meeting. The minister of our church spoke about the evils of card playing. Finally, my father asked our minister if he believed that my grandfather would spend eternity in Hell for the sin of playing solitaire. When our minister answered “yes,” my father threw him out of the house and we never returned to that church.
My father, an engineer, had designed our church building. He literally helped build that congregation. He raised his children in its Sunday School. I remember singing “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” during Sunday night services. But that same church used its religious belief to damn my grandfather. So my father understood the corruption of restoration. He saw firsthand how a church could roll back the clock to a time when religion was routinely used as a rod to condemn others to perpetual flames and torment.
By the time I became a dad, I chose not to believe in the God of my father or my grandfather. My children went unbaptized. And I raised them in a Unitarian Universalist church, where they learned to respect all religious beliefs and to honor the spiritual path they would choose for themselves.
As a Sunday School teacher, I learned the history and heritage of famous Unitarians, like John Adams, who once wrote to his friend Thomas Jefferson:
We have...a National Bible Society, to propagate King James's Bible, through all Nations. Would it not be better to apply these pious Subscriptions, to purify Christendom from the Corruptions of Christianity...[Some say] I have renounced the Christian religion...Far from it. I see in every Page, Something to recommend Christianity in its Purity and Something to discredit its Corruptions…The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my Religion.
Don't kill. Don't cheat. Don't steal. Don't lie. Don't envy your neighbor. In fact, love your neighbor. Love your neighbor as you would have your neighbor love you. Nearly every religion preaches this basic golden rule. Love everyone. Do not love only those who believe as you do. Do not withhold love from those who do not meet your approval. Everyone. No exceptions.
So I understand the corruption of laws that claim to restore religious freedom. Laws like HB 5958 are not an act of religion, bringing us together in common purpose and principle, but an act of division. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is not an act of freedom, relieving us of governmental intrusion into our souls, but an act of invasion. This proposed travesty of a law is not an act of restoration, renewing hope for a people suffering daily oppression, but an act of destruction. This so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act is a corruption of religious freedom; a corruption of our democratic principles; a corruption of the core tenets of our human community; and a corruption of the very soul of our state.
I have the great good fortune to be married to a wonderful woman. Jody serves as advocate for victims of sexual assault at the Underground Railroad, a women's shelter in Saginaw. She wanted to be here with me today. But her commitment to serving others, and my commitment to support her work, superseded our personal desires. John Adams, my Unitarian ancestor, spent many years apart from his love. To our great good fortune, they left behind a collection of correspondence exhibiting not only their devotion to each other, but also their shared commitment to justice, equality, and freedom.
Abigail and John wrote often of this new nation and of the true meaning of words like “freedom.” In one letter, Abigail wrote:
How difficult the task to quench the fire and the pride of private ambition, and to sacrifice ourselves and all our hopes and expectations to the public [welfare]! How few have souls capable of so noble an undertaking! How often are the laurels worn by those who have had no share in earning them! But there is a future... reward, to which the upright [person] looks, and which will most assuredly be obtained, provided [that person] perseveres unto the end.
You here today know about sacrifice. You have given up your time and energy to be here and to have your voices heard by your elected officials. You here today understand working toward the common good and the noble undertaking of guaranteeing freedom to all people. You here today see too clearly how those charged with guaranteeing our freedoms wear the shriveled laurels earned by catering to special interests, by pursuing power over others, and through the self-righteous delusion that they know the one truth.
Because Abigail Adams was right – there is a future reward. Moreover, we need not wait patiently until we die to receive that reward. We can unite as one people. White or black – whatever our skin color – we can unite. Woman or man – whatever our sexual orientation or gender identity – we can unite; Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox…Muslim, Jew, or Sikh…Buddhist, Hindu, or Jain…Agnostic or Atheist – whatever our religious beliefs – we can unite; Americans all, regardless of our documentation or ethnic heritage – we can unite.
We can unite to fight for equal justice under the law. We can unite to provide affordable access to health care for all. We can unite to protect our decisions on when to have children, when not to have children, and how to parent the children we have in safe and healthy communities. We can unite to ensure that every person has equal access to a quality education and a job paying a fair and living wage. We can unite to protect our planet from those who would plunder its resources and from practices that threaten our existence as a species through global climate change.
And by standing united against the corruption of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, we guard our right to believe or not to believe what we want in regards to religion. We oppose the sanctioning of discrimination against people on the basis of religious beliefs. We support the freedom of religious practice, so long as that practice does not harm others.
And we stand united to defend the wall of separation between Church and State described by Thomas Jefferson. For he acknowledged that the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience was that no legislature should pass laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. Jefferson wrote that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions,” and that depriving people of their civil rights on the basis of religious beliefs will “corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage.”
A people united will never be divided.