The False Alternative of Religious Rights vs. Gay Rights

by | Mar 31, 2015

Neither “gays” nor “religions” have rights. Only individuals have rights. And those rights are all the same.


Whenever a government sets out to deny individual rights in favor of group rights, sooner or later, those denied their individual rights must fight back.

One way to fight back? Demand your individual rights.

The other way to fight back? What we see happening in Indiana, right now. Replace one form of group rights (“gay rights”) with another (“religious rights”).

The problem? Neither “gays” nor “religions” have rights. Only individuals have rights. And those rights are all the same.

Here’s the story (my reference is 3/29/15):

Indiana has been under an “avalanche of intolerance” from people opposed to the state’s new religious freedom restoration law, said Gov. Mike Pence Sunday, but he supports the law and insisted that it will not be changed.

“I’m determined to clarify this,” the Republican governor, who signed the controversial bill into law last week, told ABC “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos. “This is about protecting the religious liberty of people of faith and families of faith across this country.”

The federal religious freedom act was signed into law more than 20 years ago by then-President Bill Clinton to layout a framework for ensuring that scrutiny is given when government action impinges upon Americans’ religious activities, Pence pointed out, saying that further, his state’s new law is the same version that President Barack Obama himself voted for while he was a state senator in Illinois.

But he denied that the law’s purpose is to discriminate against the LGBT community, but rather to “empower individuals” when they believe that the actions of government impinge on their constitutional [rights of] freedom of religion.

Stephanopoulos tried to pin the governor down on the position that the law makes it legal for businesses to refuse service to gay couples, asking him six times if it is discriminatory. Pence said the question comes from the “misinformation” that is out about the law.

“There’s been shameless rhetoric about my state and about this law and about its intention,” said Pence. “People are trying to make it about one particular issue, and now you’re doing that as well.”

Pence, the conservative politician, is clearly evading the real issue. Stephanopoulos, the liberal-progressive journalist, is trying to make him name it. If Stephanopoulos got his way, Pence would say what he probably feels: “Of course we want religious people to be able to discriminate against gay or lesbian persons. That’s part of the law’s intention, if not all of it.”

Of course, Pence’s career would possibly be finished, and he would never say that, even if he means it. If he did say it, then it would be headline news for a day or two. “Republican Governor of Indiana, and possible presidential contender, comes out in favor of legalized discrimination against gay people.”

There would be an uproar, and Pence would soon after apologize and back down from his comments, resuming his potential run for the presidency along with fifty-nine or so other potential Republican candidates.

Sadly, here’s the one issue you will never hear discussed, and the principle you will never hear defended. But it’s the only one that matters: individual rights.

In other words, the right of the individual is the right to be free from the initiation of coercion by another.

What does this mean, in practice? Take the example brought up in this interview. Gays and lesbians have an individual right to be left alone, to be free from government coercion and force. Likewise for religious persons, including those who believe (even fervently) that homosexuality is immoral, disgusting and a blight on society. They have an individual right to promote their views on their own private property, including and excluding whomever they wish. The specific form of individual right here is sometimes called freedom of association.

The point about freedom of association? Everyone has an equal right to associate, or not associate, with whomever one pleases.

In a society based on individual rights (including freedom of association), both sides would be free from force. The religious persons would be free to run their churches and even for-profit business establishments excluding gay people, if they wish. If the financial harm were worth it to them, then it would be their own business and right.

But what happens to gay and lesbian people, you might ask? What if nearly all grocery store chains, automobile manufacturers and everything else necessary for life were owned by gay-hating persons who wish not to sell to gay or lesbian individuals? First of all, that’s virtually impossible. If that were possible, then there would be no “gay rights” movement in the first place. If the overwhelming majority of the society were so hostile to gay people that no business wished to even sell food to them, then gay people would have problems that no government would ever be able to stop. In such an improbable situation, there would be no perceived need on the part of Governor Pence to be politically correct and sensitive in his remarks; there would have been nothing for him to evade.

People will also bring up the example of Jim Crow laws from the distant segregationist Southern past. Enough already with segregation. But more than that: Segregation involved the power of government — specifically local governments who forbade white people from selling to black people. This was absolutely immoral and unconstitutional. Liberal or simply commercial-minded white people who wanted to sell to black people were forbidden from doing so. This was the injustice of segregation, and why it was right for the federal government to intervene.

In America, we went from locally forced segregation to federally forced integration — which is just as coercive, and just as wrong, as forced segregation. They are two sides of the same wrong-headed coin, politically and legally speaking.

The issue isn’t the survival of gay and lesbian people (or blacks, or any other minority). The issue is the right of people — all individuals — to decide for themselves what they think, what they believe, and in what way they choose to exercise those beliefs. If you’re a religious person who doesn’t want to associate with gay persons, then you don’t have to do so.

In an individual rights society, the only thing against the law (other than fraud) is force. How can anyone argue that today’s adversarial, legally confusing, morally hypocritical, and constitutionally questionable society is an improvement over that?

I know advocates of Gov. Pence’s views who will say (and who are already typing responses), “All we’re trying to do is protect our traditional values. We have a right to protect our religious beliefs.” There’s nothing in an individual rights-based or freedom-of-association-based society to prevent that. Individual rights mean the right to associate, or not associate, with whom you please. You don’t need a law announcing the initiation of “religious rights” or “religious freedom.” Instead, you should fight for your right to your own individual rights — including the right to discriminate, if you so choose. Religious rights advocates will claim they have already done that, but Gov. Pence missed his opportunity to do so in this interview, when he evaded the freedom of association issue altogether.

Incidentally, the political right to discriminate does not mean that discrimination is rational or moral, particularly by a moral standard of rational self-interest. If you find homosexuality offensive, it makes rational sense that — if you’re a wedding cake baker — you would perhaps rather not do wedding cakes for gay couples. On the other hand, you might shut off a growing market and erode your ability to make profits. The purpose of a business is to make profits. So there are plenty of reasons to think twice before shutting out a customer base, as anyone in the business world (small or large business) knows. Nevertheless, it’s your right to make this decision for yourself. As it stands, it’s doubtful that any gay or lesbian person would knowingly or willingly shop at an openly gay-hating business establishment, especially when (at least in a free marketplace) plenty of choices exist.

I once had a conversation with a gay establishment owner about discrimination. He was a liberal Democrat, as the vast majority of gay and lesbian persons are (or at least claim to be, although quite a few disclose to me in secret they are not). He argued with me, and said that it’s always immoral and definitely should be illegal for a business to ever discriminate against someone because they’re gay. However, when I asked if he, as a business owner himself, wanted the right to keep his gay establishment exclusively gay, or at least gay-friendly so he could exercise the right to rule out accommodating straight people, he replied, “Of course. It’s my business. I’m a primarily gay establishment.” I asked him how he could justify the contradiction, but all I got in reply was a sneer and a comment, “Well, that’s different.”

Well, that’s different. This is the hypocrisy and logical fallacy upon which dictatorships are ultimately built.

Gays and lesbians were not a matter of open public discussion at the time America was founded, in the late eighteenth century. However, individual rights are a concept and a policy that apply to all issues and eras, regardless of the particulars.

If America had never abandoned the concept of individual rights, there never would have been a perceived need for “civil rights,” “gay rights” or — now — “religious freedom rights” in the first place.

The progressives and liberals complaining about “religious freedom” brought this problem on themselves.

This is because there is only one kind of right: the right of the individual. One size truly fits all.

Dr. Michael Hurd is a psychotherapist, columnist and author of "Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)" and "Grow Up America!" Visit his website at:

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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