My elementary aged nibbling recently went through an essential rite of passage in our culture: they watched The Princess Bride for the first time. My nephew loved Fezzick’s incessant rhyming and my niece wondered why it took Inigo so long to avenge his father. And they were introduced--sort of--to a very useful word: “Inconceivable!” Second only to “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die,” one of the most classic lines from the film is another of Inigo’s: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
We need Inigo Montoya to help conservatives in this country get a grip on their usage of the phrase “religious liberty.” They keep using that phrase. But I’m positive it doesn’t mean what they want us to believe it means.
Religious liberty is meant to make us a freer and more just society. It’s supposed to protect and defend diversity and liberty. It’s supposed to be a shield to protect those on the margins from the coercion and bullying of those in power. From attempting to prevent people from getting medically necessary procedures and medications to denying jobs and education to people in queer families, the right is trying to use religious liberty as a weapon to enforce its claims to a free pass to harm others. By any decent measure of politics, that’s bad. By any fair understanding of our laws, it’s awful.
And it’s a terrible way to practice Christianity.
The Supreme Court may make a bad decision led by the conservative majority. It may say that these schools had the religious liberty to fire these teachers for what would otherwise be illegal reasons. But Scripture reminds us, “everything is permissible, but not everything builds others up.” (1 Corinthians 10:23) Even if by some perversion of justice, the concept of religious liberty is distorted further by this case, Christians should not take advantage of it to engage in unethical, unjust behavior. If it is only a law that prevents a parochial school from firing a teacher for having cancer, what kind of witness to the world is that? How is our lamp shining out before the world if we commit age discrimination and defend that as our right? We must be known in the world for our good deeds--our works of justice and compassion, our advocacy for those at the margins of society, our denunciation of the powers of sin and death as made manifest in white supremacy and heteropatriarchy--not for our complicity in discrimination and injustice.