Sex, Drugs, and Religious Liberty


The Witherspoon Institute
Public Discourse




Same-sex marriage may pose a grave threat to religious liberty, but the cultural conditions and assumptions that make that threat possible are rooted in heterosexual behavior and the idea that everyone has a right to consequence-free sexual intimacy.


Last November marked the twentieth anniversary of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. At an event hosted by the Newseum and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, RFRA’s champions shared stories of how the statute came into being and the long odds it had to overcome. Though no one was resting on his or her laurels, there was a general sense of a job well-done.


And then Douglas Laycock, one of the primary architects of RFRA, began to speak. He warned that millions of Americans view religious liberty as their enemy because they resent religion’s interference in their sex lives. Even though RFRA is a “super statute,” it will offer religious believers little protection if the nation turns against religious liberty. Statutes can be repealed. Courts can empty them of their meaning.


Laycock’s warning may seem overwrought, but consider just a few news items. In New Mexico, multiple organs of state government have said that a Christian photographer violated the law by refusing to photograph a same-sex wedding. In Colorado, a Christian baker was sued because he refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, and in Washington State a florist was sued for the same reason. Christian nurses in New Jersey were required to assist with abortions or risk losing their jobs. And of course, there is the nationwide HHS contraception mandate.


How did we get here? People commonly point to the gay rights movement. It is true that the clash between sexual license and religious liberty is most often seen in the context of gay rights. But step back for a moment. In a 2012 survey of 120,000 American adults, Gallup found that only 3.4 percent identified as LGBT. How could such a small minority so dramatically change prevailing opinion?


The answer may lie in Laycock’s statement: Americans resent religion’s perceived interference in their sex lives. The president of the Barna Group, an evangelical market research organization, recently observed that “Young people’s most common complaint . . . is that churches are too focused on sexual issues.” The consequences of same-sex marriage may pose the gravest threat to religious liberty, but the cultural conditions and assumptions that make that threat possible are rooted in heterosexual behavior.


This is a curious attitude, given that no religion in America has the legal ability to force anyone, adherent or not, to follow its teachings regarding sexual morality or anything else. An evangelical Christian can impregnate his girlfriend and keep his head firmly attached to his body, unlike the situation faced by Claudio in Measure for Measure. A Catholic can buy a package of condoms at the local drugstore. The clerk won’t ask to check his religious identification before ringing up the purchase. And women of any religious persuasion can obtain an abortion in all fifty states.


Why, then, does it seem that a growing number of Americans view religious liberty with suspicion, if not outright hostility? The problem is that many Americans are offended by the existence of an opposing view. The fact that someone, somewhere, dares to voice disapproval of their sexual behavior is, it now seems, offensive in and of itself. Studied non-judgmentalism is one of the hallmarks of contemporary American culture, with departures viewed as gauche at least or, more commonly, as an illegitimate attack on the sacrosanct individual. If you doubt this, please try telling a group of largely secular thirty-somethings that you believe cohabitation is wrong and see what response you receive.


Sexual License as a Fundamental Right


The legal revolution began with Griswold v. Connecticut, which, in a sharp departure from a decades-long consensus, held that a Connecticut statute prohibiting the use of contraceptives infringed on the constitutional privacy rights of married couples.

Read here


Yet a mere seven years later, the Court held in Eisenstadt v. Baird that limiting the sale of contraceptives to married persons violated the Equal Protection Clause. Justice Brennan abandoned the previous rationale of marriage’s special status, writing that “the marital couple is not an independent entity with a mind and heart of its own, but an association of two individuals.”

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