I want to delve a little more into my strongly held belief that there should be no “accommodations” for public servants who want to opt out of serving some segment of the public due to a personal or “strongly held” religious belief. I’ve been asked, if the person can still get the service from someone else, or from a different office, why shouldn’t we provide the accommodation. Here’s why I believe such accommodations always are wrong.
1. In some places, there might not be anyone else to perform the service. We already saw one county in Tennessee where the entire clerk’s office resigned. Couples — whether opposite-sex or same-sex — in that county now have to travel, at additional effort and expense, to another county. (And bonus: same-sex couples and LGBT Americans will be blamed for the inability of opposite-sex couples to get government services from their government officials.)
2. We’re paying public servants with public monies to provide service to the public. If they’re no longer serving all the public, then they’re de facto not public servants, and they should no longer expect to be paid with public funds.
3. When engaged in the responsibilities of a public servant, the person holding that job is acting not as a private citizen but as the government itself. Private citizens have religious beliefs; governments (at least in the U.S.) constitutionally do not and may not. Yes, we’re asking these people to do things that they may personally disagree with; that’s part of the package of accepting such a position, and we don’t generally hear of public servants refusing to issue drivers’ licenses to women (if they have a personal religious belief that women should not drive), or to refuse to give marriage licenses to the divorced (if they have a personal religious belief that the divorced may not religiously remarry), etc. I think most people would feel a visceral sense of outrage, that the Constitution were being violated, if it were suggested that a government official could just opt out of ever serving African Americans, or women, or Christians, even if someone else in the office would still provide such services; why should it not cause the same level of outrage and inherent sense of legal wrongness when the official wants to be able to opt out of serving LGBT Americans?
4. Being able to get a marriage license to marry the legal adult of your choosing (assuming they’re not already married, etc.) is a fundamental right, according to the U.S.’s highest court’s interpretation of the U.S.’s highest basis of law, the Constitution. Holding a government job is not a fundamental right. When there’s a conflict between the two, then, the first should trump the second.
5. We’re inflicting an additional harm — and in some ways I think it’s more serious than the actual denial or deferral of the service itself — on the member of the public whose right is denied or deferred. In addition to whatever inconvenience or costs (in dollars or time) you incur by having to wait, or to travel elsewhere, when someone else similarly situated is not similarly inconvenienced, we’re sending a message that the government considers you to be someone whose fundamental Constitutional rights are secondary to someone else’s private beliefs. We’re sending a message that the government — remember, the public servant IS the government when performing her public duties — considers you to be someone that it may consider, and to act upon that consideration, as unclean, as sinful, as unworthy of your rights.
Many people get this, especially those who, because of the color of their skin, their national origin, or their gender, or some other factor, have experienced something similar, an expectation that their fundamental rights are secondary to someone else’s private beliefs. But it just takes some basic empathy to understand it. Imagine that you show up at a government office, and you’re told that you’ll need to wait because the person on duty has a religious belief that doesn’t allow them to serve you (maybe because you’re a person of color, or you’re a woman, or you’re left-handed, or you have a tattoo, or you’re a Catholic–there are lots of things that people have found religious reasons to condemn.).
The office has put in a call to another government employee who doesn’t think you’re untouchable, or who is willing to do her job even if she does believe that you’re a monster, but in the meantime, until she gets back from lunch, or maybe even only after she’s back from vacation, other people come in, walk up to the counter in sequence, get their government business transacted, and leave, without being publicly humiliated or questioned just for asking for the same thing everyone else is getting.
Or maybe everyone at that particular office shares the same religious inability to transact official business with you, and you have to get back in your car and drive 60 miles to the next nearest government office, hoping that there will be someone there who will help you.
How might that make you feel, knowing that your government has just told you that you’re not actually equal under the law, that your inconvenience is worth someone else’s satisfaction at knowing they’ve put you in your place? How might your children feel when you try to explain to them that the government is permitted to treat them differently, because some government employees personally believe that they’re going to hell? There’s the harm inflicted by not getting the service, or not getting it as timely or without a tacit moral judgment as everyone else, but there’s an additional harm inflicted by having the government justifying those employees’ private moral judgments. There’s a personal cost when even your own government is permitted to hold and to act upon a belief that you’re sick, sinful, or subhuman, or that the majority is allowed to decide what rights you should have.
Imagine that your state decides to put it to a public vote whether or not you should be allowed to vote, or to marry, or to own property. Even if the vote fails, what might it be like to go through a year of having people debate not just your citizenship but your very humanity and your very likelihood of being condemned to eternal infinite torture (even if you don’t believe it, you can’t escape knowing that they believe it and that they think you deserve it), on radio and television, online, in signs in front yards and billboards, every single day? That might have a cost, too, don’t you think? Personally, I don’t think it’s a cost the government should — or, constitutionally, can — be endorsing, subsidizing, or accommodating.