Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

When a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound? How about when the U.S. Civil Rights Commission issues a groundbreaking report and nobody hears about it? Such appears to be the case regarding a recent report by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission called “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties.” The report hasn't received the attention it deserves but when the Commission's new understanding of religious freedom is discovered to be subservient to nondiscrimination laws, people will hear about it.

The 300-page report is a bombshell that rocks America's well-established understanding of religious freedom—especially as it conflicts with newly asserted claims to sexual freedom. U.S. Civil Rights Commission Chairman Martin Castro charged that "Religious exemptions to the protections of civil rights based upon classifications such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity, when they are permissible, significantly infringe upon these civil rights." For the record, sexual orientation and gender identity are not federal statutory protected civil rights.

The report couldn't be more timely. There are cases now in two states where non-discrimination laws that recognize sexual orientation and gender identity as protected civil rights are overriding church policy.  The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which enforces the state’s anti-discrimination laws, said that churches “open to the public” must allow crossdressers to use restrooms of the opposite sex.  This means that crossdressing men in Massachusetts have the right to enter women's restrooms in any church. In Iowa, the Civil Rights Commission ordered a church to censor their teaching on human sexuality because they consider churches public accommodations which are governed under the state's so-called Fairness Laws.  Neither case is an aberration. They're a bellwether of what's on the horizon for religious liberty.

U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Martin Castro assailed the phrases “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” when he said they "will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance." Put that way, its hard to see how anyone could be for that kind of religious liberty. Yet Castro, and his seven-member commission, shouldn't assume authority to impose new interpretations on an inherent human right. Sexual identity on the other hand is an unsettled if emerging right that is imposing itself into public places, institutions and events.

The ACC and NCAA made transgender rights their rallying cry of diversity as they pulled out of post-season games in North Carolina to protest HB 2. The U.S. Navy announced that it will now begin transgender acceptance and sensitivity training for its sailors and the U.S. Army will pay for a court-martialed soldier's sex-change surgery while serving out a prison sentence.  Such hasty impositions throw into question what it means to be human and subverts our understanding of rights.

The right to self-define gender contrary to biological truth is quite new. The right to  religious freedom on the other hand has been part of our core identity as Americans. Religious freedom has enjoyed permanency since the Pilgrims found it when they first touched our shores. Our Constitution forbids Congress from imposing a national religion and citizen's religious freedom claims have been upheld by our highest court. Religious freedom—the ability to live and worship according to one's conscience and convictions—without government reprisal—is central to the idea of America.

It's ironic that churches are caught in the crosshairs of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and other states' novel understanding of religious freedom. Churches have been considered shelters for the hurting and shepherds of moral truth. They've had the freedom to teach that man is made in the image of God and defines and assigns gender. Religious leaders teach that God gives moral boundaries to mankind and when moral boundaries are breeched people are hurt. The church is on the verge of losing the freedom to say these things.

The government has supplanted the role of the church by assuming the mantle of moral truth and determiner of human rights. By redefining the terms of the debate it is perpetuating brokenness for individuals and bringing disharmony into society's most private and revered places. We cannot see the forest from the trees when governmental bodies make sexuality and gender identity the pre-eminent civil right at the expense of rights actually found in the U.S. Constitution.  Yes, people will hear about this ruling.

This column appeared in the September 28 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer.