Alabama's Roy Moore is no champion for religious freedom

Alabama's Roy Moore is no champion for religious freedom
© Getty

Barring an unexpected upset, twice-removed former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore will soon be a member of the United States Senate.

Moore has consistently made matters of church and state central to his political message, which has earned him both scorn in Washington and a national fan base. Unfortunately, Moore's public comments evidence a profound misunderstanding of the how our constitutional rights work. These views should be be publicly rejected, especially by those of us who defend the (often unpopular) religious rights of Muslim refugees and Christian wedding artists.

ADVERTISEMENT
Where has Moore gone wrong on law and religion? Moore has said that Islam is a “false religion,” and the “opposite” of “what our First Amendment stands for;” and that when legal outcomes contravene “God's law,” public officials charged with executing laws have a moral duty to lay those laws aside in favor of God's law.

Moore’s misplaced views have led him to refuse to enforce federal court orders both legalizing gay marriage and ordering removal of a Ten Commandments statue. As chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, he instructed other judges to follow his misguided lead, which prompted his removal from the bench, not once, but twice.

Moore conveniently ignores the history of America’s founding. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington expressed great solicitude for the rights of Jews and Muslims. While many Framers were Christian, Jefferson famously took a razor to portions of the New Testament he found implausible. Certainly Moore and those who share his views would regard Jefferson’s irreverent and unorthodox beliefs as “false religion.” Would Moore contend that Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, lacked constitutionally protected free exercise of religion?  

Moore's mistake is not that he believes in a moral law that exists apart from the will of the majority. This is a view shared by the Founders ("endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights...") and brilliantly expressed by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. No, Moore’s error lies in the fact that his view, taken to its logical conclusion, would leave citizens who wish to live in accordance with such a moral law subject to the whims of whoever happens to be in power at the time.

Imagine a world in which a (religiously informed) progressive judge announced injunctions against laws authorizing the death penalty or offshore drilling, on the basis that they violated his or her religious beliefs. Moore would presumably decry such judicial activism, regardless of the religious rationale. But Moore’s own conduct robs that argument of its power, leaving nothing but sheer political will to adjudicate between his and any competing theories of what constitutes a higher law.

Ironically, Moore’s theory (unintentionally) leaves vulnerable the very people he presumably wishes to protect. It does so by injecting into the body politic the notion that certain religious groups can be disfavored merely because they have beliefs that run contrary to prevailing social norms.

While one senator will never have the power to enact this policy vision, why should we engage Moore at all?

In my view, his rampant tribalism threatens to taint religious freedom for all as a front for special pleading by a certain category of Christians. Religious freedom supporters will face these false accusations no matter what, but it would be best if fair-minded observers did not find any actual evidence that these charges are true.

Many religious freedom supporters feel that the left is their principal threat, and have adopted a “no enemies on the right” posture. Under this view, Moore’s penchant for demagoguery directed against religious minorities is tolerable given that he has the “right enemies.”

Not so. The biggest threat to religious freedom is a big, bad, and ancient idea that has iterations on both the right and left: that religious freedom is subject to the whims of the majority. On the left, we hear the idea that the Little Sisters of the Poor are on the “wrong side of history,” so they should have to pay for birth control. On the right, we hear that Muslims should have no religious freedom at all.

Every religious belief is a minority in some part of America, which is why a majority-rules theory of religious freedom eventually means no religious freedom at all.

Roy Moore is not a champion of religious freedom; he is a misguided advocate of a theory that would destroy it for everyone.

Tim Schultz is the President of the 1st Amendment Partnership, an organization dedicated to protecting the religious freedom of Americans of all faiths, primarily through advocacy in state legislatures.