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Did you know that “Religious liberty has an important place in American society, to be sure”?

That’s the opening sentence of the final paragraph of a summary in The New York Review of Books of the gay rights versus religious liberty debate. 

The phrasing implies that religious liberty is but one of several freedoms and values in our country. The “to be sure” tag on the end has a condescending sound, too, as though the author, David Cole, were hardly taking the actual devotions of believers into account, speaking to them in a tone of paternal guidance.

The next sentence continues that rhetoric of acceptance and diminishment: “Accommodation of religious practices is a sign of a tolerant multicultural society—so long as the accommodation does not simply shift burdens from one minority to another.”

The language is altogether current. We talk not about actual practices and beliefs, but about procedural matters (“accommodation”). We don’t posit a specific moral vision with genuine content. We acknowledge “minorities” and hail “multiculturalism.” A religious group is just another group of people. Collectivities form in all kinds of ways—for instance, around a particular theological doctrine, a political principle, a sports team, an art form. . . . Religion is to be fitted and arranged just as other dispositions are fitted and arranged.

As Cole says, “The freedom to exercise one’s religion is a fundamental value, but like other values, it has its limits.”

This is to level religion with other organizing motives, a reduction that would have puzzled the Founders, who placed religious liberty as the first guarantee in the Bill of Rights for a reason. They understood that religious conviction is different from other preferences. They were sensitive to its depths, to its definitive character, and most obviously to the fact that people who believe in God and belong to a church accept both as transcendent authorities.

But, of course, if you regard religion as just another human construct, then it has no claim higher than other claims. That makes religion subordinate to the principles of arrangement and accommodation noted above, leading to Cole’s entirely predictable and blunt conclusion: “Those who oppose same-sex marriage should be free to express their opposition in speech to their heart’s (and religion’s) content, but not to engage in acts of discrimination.”

The conclusion is inevitable once you conceive of religion as simply a group identity. At that point, the error of religious faith is to set its central object, God, above other groups’ central objects (for instance, same-sex desire) after having entered the public sphere.

There is another value that is higher than all of them: namely, anti-discrimination, the sacred value of the present time, and it disallows any other elevation. Cole’s remarks indicate that anti-discrimination reasoning is a two-step process, not a single principle. First, it had to undo God’s transcendent reality, or at least deny that human beings can determine what that reality commands us to do. Only then can we present the simple demand not to discriminate. 

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.

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