KENNEDY: Coats’ religion is no defense

Keywords Opinion / Taking Issue

Sheila Suess KennedyAmericans have been using religion to argue for and against laws since the country was founded. Proponents and opponents of slavery both pointed to Bible verses justifying their positions. Opponents of equal rights for women claimed suffrage violated God’s law.

When the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequent state-level civil rights laws were being debated, resistance was often justified on religious grounds: “My religion teaches that black people shouldn’t mingle with whites.” “The Bible says women should tend the home and be submissive to men.”

And of course, the ever popular, “A law telling me I can’t disapprove of certain people and refuse to employ/serve them is an infringement of my liberty to run my establishment in accordance with my beliefs.”

Early this month, the U.S. Senate passed the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, a civil rights measure that has been languishing in Congress for at least 20 years despite the fact that for a good part of that time, polls have shown support hovering around 80 percent. (Approval by the more dysfunctional House remains uncertain.)

The act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. A number of Republican senators voted against the measure, but only one took the floor to urge its defeat: Indiana’s Dan Coats.

Coats insists that the act “violates religious liberty.”

It is certainly true that the law would prevent people whose religions preach intolerance from acting on that intolerance in the workplace. That’s the price we pay for living in a system that values legal equality and separates civil from religious law.

I first met Coats in 1980, when we were both Republican candidates for Congress. When he later ran for Senate, he asked me to host a fundraiser for him. I hadn’t paid much attention to his record, however, and when I asked several female friends if they would attend, I got an earful about his position on women’s issues and reproductive rights.

(For younger people who might be reading this, I kid you not: An earlier, less-extreme GOP used to include lots of pro-choice women. Honest. Google it if you don’t believe me.)

When I explained to Coats that his votes had made him persona non grata to pretty much anyone I’d invite, he was gracious. But I’ve never forgotten his explanation: “This is a religious issue for me.”

Well, it’s a constitutional issue for me.

In a diverse country, religious beliefs differ—and the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits Coats from using the law to impose his particular religious beliefs on those of us who don’t share them.

Coats is a perfect illustration of a phenomenon that drives me batty—the (apparently sincere) belief that if the law isn’t forcing everyone to live by his religious beliefs, he is the one being discriminated against.

Take that position to its logical consequences, and a diverse society could neither exist nor function. Coats doesn’t have to like gay people, or Jewish people, or any other people. He doesn’t have to invite us to join his private club, and he needn’t invite us over for dinner. He does, however, have to share civil society with us.

And that, senator, requires giving unto others the same rights you demand for yourself.

As long as we are talking about morality, I would also observe that an unwillingness to respect the equal human dignity and rights of people who differ from you is a pretty significant moral failure in the view of most religions.•


Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at She can be reached at Send comments on this column to

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