In a keynote speech for a symposium at Brigham Young University an LDS general authority likened religion to other “core identity factors” like race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. The headline immediately started my blood boiling, but ever the “fact-checker,” I wanted to delve deeper before I formed an opinion and reacted (or over-reacted).
It turns out, however, the headline summed it all up. Elder L Whitney Clayton of the LDS Church’s Presidency of the Quorum of Seventy said:
“Religious beliefs are as much a part of many people’s core identity as race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation and should be offered at least as much protection,
“If you have concluded that certain favored classes deserve special legal protection and accommodation, but that people of faith do not because they have chosen their beliefs and can just as easily unchoose them, I would ask you to reconsider.”
What angers me about his statement isn’t his conclusion about protections. I believe religion deserves the protection afforded it in the Constitution. Like other “core identity factors” (his words not mine) they do not deserve special protection, they deserve equal protection.
My disagreement comes with his equation of religion with other innate, unchangeable, identity factors. Religion IS protected by the Constitution of the United States, but it is not something you are born with like race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
Whether you are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Mormon, Catholic, Atheist or anywhere else along the religious spectrum, your beliefs deserve protection—equally. An Atheist, Christian, Jew, and Muslim all deserve equal consideration under the law. They deserve the same consideration as a black/white, male/female, gay/straight person, or any other identifiable trait.
When I say the same consideration I mean: they should all be able to have a cake baked for their wedding. Conversely, if their business is baking cakes, they should bake a cake for ALL OF THOSE CLASSIFICATIONS. Your identity doesn’t determine for whom you make a cake and it shouldn’t determine whether or not your cake is made.
I take issue with the word “unchoose.” Elder Whitney suggests you can’t unchoose your beliefs—your religion. The problem is, people “unchoose” these all the time. How many times in recent years have we heard of people’s belief or understanding of a certain issue “evolving?” Their belief in marriage equality has “evolved.” Their standing on immigration has changed one way or another since visiting the border.
People also choose, or unchoose, religion all the time. Many people are born into a religion and choose something else (or nothing else) later as their beliefs change. Some are born with no set religious beliefs, only to join an organized religion later in life.
Religious beliefs are NOT something you are born with. You are born black or white. You are born genetically male or female (whether you are cisgender or transgender or somewhere else along the line is another issue but still something you are born with). You are born gay, straight, or somewhere along the spectrum. These “core identity factors” ARE unchangeable. You are who you are. If you are born white, you are never going to be black (remember that NAACP president who claimed to be black). If you are gay, you are never going to be straight (even if you pretend to be for years trying to change it).
However, if you were born Catholic, you may decide to be Muslim later. If you were born Mormon you may choose to be agnostic later. If you were born with no familial religious affiliate, you may choose to join Judaism later in your life. You even may be born Hindu and choose to stay with Hinduism your entire life. Ultimately, however, you do choose your religion and the beliefs associated with it. Because they are not innate is the very reason they can and often do change or “evolve” throughout life.
I agree that religious beliefs are a core part of a person’s identity, but to equate them with other factors like race or gender is naïve and even potentially harmful. The very fact they are labeled beliefs separates them from other core factors. Someone may be born a brunette but believe blonds have more fun and thus color their hair accordingly. Someone may be born with light skin and have a preference for dark, therefore tanning their skin because they believe it looks better on them or even has some benefit for them.
We cannot change where we were born. We cannot change to whom we are attracted. These things do not “evolve.” Our interaction and acceptance of them may change over time, but the “core feature” is a constant. Religion, while deserving EQUAL protection as other identity factors, is absolutely NOT a constant.