Eastern Michigan University has a problem. A former student who felt that her Christian faith prevented her from providing counseling services to a gay male student who sought them was removed from the program and subsequently sued. Although the Federal Courts which have heard the matter thus far have ruled in favor of EMU, a bipartisan team of legislators are fighting to allow future Julea Ward’s the right to discriminate against whoever they wish — without having to worry about pesky institutional sanctions — so long as counseling that individual ran contrary to a “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.”
Now, this concern for the moral conscience of college students is admirable. There are, however, a number of questions which it raises. The one of the most import, however, is about the role that an individual’s personal faith should be allowed to play when they are crafting legislation for the public. It is therefore worth observing the exchange that State Senator Hunter, who is black, had with reporters following the unveiling of the legislation:
Asked if a white nationalist who was an adherent of a brand of Christianity called Christian Identity would be allowed to invoke their sincerely held religious beliefs to refuse to counsel a person of color, Hunter replied, “No. That is where I draw the line.
“You pose a scenario that some one could suggest that’s like being discriminated against because of sexuality,” said Hunter. “When I believe that there is a moral value, what I believe, that is one thing. To say that, you know, that sexuality is on the same level as an issue of racism, that is a debate we need to have.”
Hunter said the Bible prohibits homosexual activity but does not support racism. Asked if under his scenario he weren’t setting universities and colleges up to be the arbitrators of which religious values were and were not valid, Hunter said, “No.”
As we can see, when individuals legislate based on their personal moral sentiments rather than on the merits of an individual issue, we obtain some rather absurd arguments based on nothing but self-interest. If the principle at stake is the right of individuals to make moral judgments about the activities of their peers based on their personal understanding of their own religion, then why isn’t our principled State Senator on the side of the bigots who are bigoted against him? Is it, perhaps, because in his own heart he shares their sentiments?
This is not to say that public policy debates should entertain the sort of laissez-faire moral relativism of which many of the secular persuasion are so frequently accused. It is rather to assert that, when making policy in the public sphere, an individual is required — for the sake of the legitimacy of the system — to make arguments which are more satisfying than “because my Bible/Qur’an/Talmud/etc told me so.” This is for a simple reason: Legislation concerns a great number of individuals who hold contrary theological beliefs. These individuals are also a part of the polity. To alienate them from its laws is to assert that, rather than governing based on the rights of citizens, the government has the right to govern based on the simple right of power alone. I can hardly think of a more unAmerican principle.