Religious exemption in state’s anti-discrimination laws only would add injustice

Author: Daniel Smith - April 20, 2018 - Updated: April 20, 2018

Daniel Smith

Fifty years ago, in the wake of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act. Congress was coming to terms with the awful truth that people of color were systematically refused a decent place to live. And they decided it was time to do something about it.

And the people of Colorado wondered what took them so long. Seven years earlier, in 1951, we passed the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, and soon after established the Colorado Civil Rights Division (CCRD) and Colorado Civil Rights Commission (CCRC), protecting all citizens in our state from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Today, the CCRD ensures that a man isn’t denied a job because he is older, a woman isn’t denied a place to live because she is pregnant, or a family isn’t denied a seat in a restaurant because they are black or both parents are dads. That’s something we can be proud of.

Of course, you don’t have to look far to see that problems still persist. The “protected classes” in Colorado’s anti-discrimination laws still face prejudice: Women are still paid less than men for the same job. Segregation in our cities and schools persists. LGBTQ youth are far more likely to be homeless. People with a disability still fight to have a place at the table. None of these problems can be solved alone by the CCRD and CCRC, they are the ugly results of generational prejudice and systemic injustice.

But for over fifty years, the CCRD has tirelessly defended the rights of every Coloradan. And it will continue … if we let it. The CCRD is up for reauthorization, and as a person of faith proud of our state’s commitment to civil rights, I hope our elected leaders will ensure it continues its good work.

I believe most agree that the CCRD should continue in its mission. But, there are those who would like to see a wrinkle added to the CCRD: a religious exemption to its rulings. And I understand the desire. As a Christian, I see how the rights of people of faith are threatened by governments across the world and throughout history. But I believe a religious exemption will further not justice, but injustice.

Throughout our history injustice has cloaked itself in religious faith to gain legitimacy. Slavery was justified with scripture. Denying women equal rights was seen as upholding a divine-ordained order to society. The theft of land from Native Americans was considered a manifest destiny endorsed by God. Faith has proven to be the most determined source of morality, and that fact has been abused to deny civil rights far too often to assume it couldn’t still happen today.

But if the fear of abuse isn’t enough to prevent a religious exemption to the CCRD, then I hope our faith itself will. I believe that God calls us not to defend our own rights and causes, but to defend those with less: less power, less wealth, less social capital. In our country, people of faith – especially majority faiths – are afforded rights unheard of in history and codified in our Constitution. We’ve just finished celebrating Easter and Passover, and Ramadan is soon upon us – and the right to worship and live out our faith is as protected now as it ever has been. As people of faith, to squander that privilege and our collective commitment to justice on ourselves would be to deny the very acts of love our faith demands.

Daniel Smith

Daniel Smith

Daniel Smith is pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church in Colorado Springs.