The Puritans fled England in order to worship free of government interference. The first they did when setting up the Massachusetts Bay Colony was prohibit religious practices other than theirs. Despite the ratification of the 1st amendment, Americans have tried to use their religious views for the purpose of discrimination for over 200 years. Arizona is the latest battleground.
The amendment prohibits a national religion. Its purpose was to allow citizens to worship in any form they chose. However, for a long time that meant your choice was to be white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant or find yourself excluded from the political and social life of this nation. (usually it meant a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, male) Under the guise of practicing their free religious beliefs, Americans sanctioned slavery, war and sanctified male chauvinism. They constructed a public school system that denigrated Catholicism and Judaism, approved restricted clubs and organizations, and passed laws limiting the rights of fellow citizens using God and the Bible for justification.
In Oregon, a state that had a large Klan presence in the early 20th century, a law was passed prohibiting parents from sending their children to anything but a public school. This was aimed at the Catholic schools that dotted the state and originated from a hatred of the Church and its influence. (it was overturned by the Supreme Court in its Pierce vs. the Society of Sisters decision) When women started to agitate for the right to vote, the pulpits were filled with voices excoriating the idea of a fully enfranchised woman as being antithetical to biblical exhortations demanding women be obedient and subservient to men. It was scripture which was used to justify the expansion of this country from coast to coast with adherents claiming God gave them a manifest destiny to conquer all the lands and either kill, or convert, the "heathens" they found. Ironically, when Mennonites and Quakers pointed to their biblical, religious commitment to pacifism, and refused to serve in the military, they were thrown into federal prison. I guess religious preferences can only go so far. Despite the first amendment, their religious views did not supersede the nation's need for war.
Across the land today, the cry of religious freedom rings. It is the new way discrimination and prejudice are being packaged. Catholic bishops claim they have the right to deny coverage of contraception to employees in their health insurance because they oppose contraception on religious grounds. (not really since these same bishops approve of the use of the rhythm method which involves the same intention as any other form of birth control) Landlords are trying to use religion to justify not renting to unmarried couples who might be engaging in biblically prohibited adultery or breaking other commandments behind closed doors. (how do they know?) Owners of pharmacies claim they should be able to refuse to sell the morning after pill because they oppose abortion for religious reasons. (despite the scientific evidence which shows the Plan B pill is not an abortafacient) And now, states like Arizona are attempting to pass laws permitting business owners to discriminate against same-sex married couples because of biblical jeremiads against homosexuality. The action in Arizona continues an unbroken chain from Massachusetts Bay to Phoenix, of Americans trying to use their first amendment religious protections to impose their views and deny fellow citizens similar privileges guaranteed them in the Bill of Rights.
Imagine if the Arizona bill allowed businesses to refuse service to mixed race couples. You laugh? Less than 50 years ago laws existed throughout this nation which made it illegal for an African-American to marry a white person. The laws were defended by evangelical preachers using the Bible which, according to them, prohibited such arrangements in order to protect against the mongrolization of the races. (do you remember the rule at Bob Jones University prohibiting races from dating each other; again claiming it was in accordance with their religious beliefs?) Imagine if Arizona's law allowed businesses to refuse service to Catholics or Jews. Jews? Christian religious views have been used to massacre Jews and discriminate against them for 2000 years. Prominent fundamentalists like Jimmy Swaggert, Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson have consistently claimed God doesn't even hear the prayers of Jews. This is the same crowd which called the Catholic Church the whore of Babylon. (we had a whole political party dedicated to anti Catholic sentiments called the Know-Nothing Party). The Pope was frequently accused of unspeakable crimes. How deferent should the constitution be to these views?
In San Francisco, the Olympic Club was forced to admit women...Augusta National Gold Club shared the same fate...what if they claimed a religious belief in the subordination of women and were opposed to women and men mixing in social settings? Could they engage in such discrimination? Regressives have chaffed for years over their inability to impose their cultural norms on everyone in this nation. They rail against a court system which has checked them each time they attempted to impose their views and to take away rights from other Americans.
When the Catholic Church is engaged in religious activities in its churches and parishes, it should be, and is, free from government scrutiny. However, when the Church operates secular institutions...secular businesses...such as hospitals, adoption agencies, universities, charities and is engaged in the secular world serving all people and employing many non-Catholics, it is subject to the same rules and constitutional strictures as any other business. (the Catholic Church opposes divorce...should a Catholic employer be able to fire an employee who divorces his or her spouse?) When a fundamentalist Christian opens a pharmacy, it isn't limited to serving only other Christians. They engage in commerce and are open to all customers. Their religious freedom stops at the tip of a customer's nose.
Throughout our history, religion has been used to justify prejudice and discrimination and eventually the courts have stepped in, and sometimes actual Christianity has prevailed, prohibiting such actions. Arizona regressives want to turn back the clock, instead of turning the other cheek, to an era when religion could be used as a cudgel to enforce and justify bigotry and prejudice. The struggle continues and this too will end up in the courts at some point. It is a shame the tenets of the little Jewish carpenter from Nazareth have been used for such immoral purposes rather than to draw us closer to God and each other. I'm sure She wishes it were otherwise.