In his opinion piece published by the Idaho Statesman Dec. 2, Brian Merz indicates he agrees with the intent of Boises proposed non-discrimination ordinance, but that it needs to have additional exemptions.
Independent contractors serving the public should not be able to refuse service or deny hiring someone based on their age, gender, religion, race or sexual orientation or gender identity. Allowing independent contractors operating in the public marketplace to deny service to a gay couple is just the first step. Next, this proposal could allow landlords to claim their religion says they shouldnt rent apartments to a Jewish couple or a doctor to claim his religion wont allow him to provide emergency care for a Muslim‐American. Mr. Merzs proposal would set no boundary on when or why someone can discriminate. Everyone deserves to be treated fairly, and this means that our anti‐discrimination laws should apply to everyone equally. People have religious beliefs, but it does not give them the right to discriminate.
The proposed ordinance doesnt tell churches or other religious organizations whom they have to hire for religious positions or that they have to provide services when it violates their religious beliefs. It applies to businesses that dont meet the ordinances exemption. Once a business owner, including private contractors, puts a company out in the public marketplace, then religion cannot be used to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, just as is true for race or religion. The proposed ordinance in no way alters the existing religious rights secured under state and federal law. What Mr. Merz is asking for is actually special rights allowing individuals to use religion to discriminate. This has profound ramifications if you think about the scope of what he is advocating.
If we allow discrimination in one situation, it will be allowed in other situations. Indeed, if we allow independent contractors, as individuals, to discriminate why shouldnt doctors in hospitals be able to refuse provide essential care and school counselors deny helping lesbian and gay teenagers because of their religious convictions?
There are many diverse faiths in our country, and we would all suffer if private employers or independent contractors got to make decisions about who to discriminate against based on their religion. Adding additional exemptions is a slippery slope and is discrimination pure and simple.
For example, while there are over 20 major religions practiced in the United States, among the minor religions is the Christian Identity movement. A variety of loosely affiliated believers and churches, members of this religious group believe in a white supremacist theology. Currently those believing in Christian Identity are not allowed to deny services to African Americans because of their race. However, enacting discrimination exemptions, like the one proposed by Mr. Merz, it applies to all religions and upends the existing state and federal acknowledgement that freedom from discrimination is a civil right.
By stating, The laws of Boise should be consistent with the U.S. Constitution, Mr. Merz falsely alleges that the proposed ordinance is somehow unconstitutional. Indeed, the city of Boise should be commended for drafting an ordinance that provides exceptions consistent with First Amendment jurisprudence regarding the freedom of speech and exercise of religion. Mr. Merz is asking the city of Boise to go beyond the scope of constitutionality to offer special rights for those wishing to use religion to discriminate.
Religious freedom in America means that every person has the right to his or her own personal, religious beliefs. It is not a free pass that people and institutions can use whenever they want to discriminate against others, and it does not mean that religious institutions, or individuals, are exempt from following the laws.
Monica Hopkins is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho.