Other Voices

Texas attorney general is undermining religious liberty

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton AP

Our state’s elected leaders claim to support religious freedom, but many are acting in ways that threaten and radically redefine that fundamental liberty.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton did so when, earlier this month, he appointed a new top staff attorney for his office.

Jeff Mateer, the new first assistant attorney general, had been serving as general counsel for a political advocacy group that uses the courts to promote an agenda hostile to one of our most important protections for religious freedom: separation of church and state.

Mateer has explicitly rejected this key constitutional principle, declaring that church-state separation appears nowhere in the Constitution.

That’s a tired rhetorical trick.

The specific words “fair trial,” “right to privacy” and “checks and balances” also aren’t stated expressly in the Constitution. But all of them, like separation of church and state, are long-established principles grounded in the Constitution’s provisions and repeatedly upheld by our courts.

Our nation’s founders wisely understood that to protect religious liberty, government must be prohibited from favoring or disfavoring any religion. Someone who rejects separation of church and state simply isn’t a champion of religious liberty.

Mateer and other politicians have turned “religious freedom” into a talking point in their efforts to excuse businesses and individuals, even government officials, who fire or deny services to people who offend their religious beliefs.

They cynically portray laws that bar such discrimination as evidence of government persecution of people of faith and threats to religious liberty.

But religious freedom has never meant the right to use religion to harm others or ignore laws you don’t like. Nor should it.

During the 2015 legislative session, the attorney general’s office supported — unsuccessfully — bills that would have allowed the use of religion to discriminate.

At a Senate State Affairs hearing last month, a member of the attorney general’s staff promoted efforts to pass such legislation again in 2017. Paxton has expressed support for such laws in letters to legislative leaders.

Opposition to same-sex marriage and to measures protecting gay and transgender people from discrimination has fueled these calls for religious refusals — using religion to refuse to obey laws or policies one doesn’t like.

Once you open the door for using religion to discriminate against any one group of people, then everyone is vulnerable.

Should government officials be allowed — based on their personal religious beliefs — to refuse to issue marriage licenses to people who have lived together or are divorced from former spouses?

Should we look the other way when landlords who believe that bearing children out of wedlock is a sin refuse to rent to single mothers?

And if this campaign for religious refusals is successful, be prepared for a full-out assault on state and federal civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination.

In America we all have the right to equal treatment under the law, regardless of who we are or what we believe.

But politicians like Paxton are undermining this basic constitutional principle by twisting the meaning of another, religious liberty.

Religious freedom has never meant the right to use religion to discriminate, to pick and choose which laws one will obey, or to impose one’s personal religious beliefs on other people. We should not change that.

Kathy Miller is president of the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan religious liberties watchdog based in Austin.

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