Political science scholars spar over contentious subject

Dr. John Corvino and Ryan T. Anderson, co-authors of the newly published book Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination, came to Notre Dame’s campus on Thursday, September 7th to defend and discuss their respective sides in the hotly contested political debate on religious liberty.

The speakers gathered in the Nanovic Forum to hear the two academics perform a Lincoln-Douglas style debate, in which each scholar get time to present their argument and then deliver a rebuttal. The event was sponsored by the Constitutional Studies Program, the Tocqueville Program, BridgeND, and the Dean’s Fellows of the College of Arts and Letters.

Based on their backgrounds, Corvino and Anderson are unlikely co-authors. Anderson, William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, is well-known for his defense of traditional marriage. Corvino, a professor and chair of the Philosophy Department at Wayne State University, is an outspoken advocate for gay marriage and anti-discrimination law.

Corvino began the debate on a lighthearted note, joking that many ask him, “How can you call Ryan Anderson a friend, as a gay rights activist and as a gay man?” He quipped, “I drink,” and received a roar of laughter from the audience. Corvino continued to explain that the two men wrote the book together, and subsequently were here debating, due to a common belief that serious public issues deserve serious public dialogue.

Corvino’s argument centered on three main points where he differed from Anderson in his understanding of religious liberty. He first stated, “generally speaking religious people should play by the same rules as everyone else”–that is, he is against what he calls “religious privilege.” He admitted that there are some exceptions to this, as he acknowledged that sometimes rules target and discriminate against religious people very directly.

However, Corvino stated concern about the precedent Supreme Court cases like the Hobby Lobby case set, stating that he was worried about the possibility that privilege will be granted to certain forms of religion over others, or that people will use the religious freedom exemption as an excuse to get out of laws they find unappealing.

The next point Corvino described was that just because the government can easily accommodate a person’s conscience claim does not mean that it should. His third and final point of departure from Anderson’s understanding of religious liberty was specifically on discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Alluding to the pending Supreme Court case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, Corvino argued that there is too much focus on wedding providers in the debate, and the reality is that the discrimination often revolves around housing, employment, and basic goods and services. He stated that there is a “slippery slope” we should be concerned about, and that religious liberty should focus on consistency in the kinds of characteristics enumerated in anti-discrimination law and in the way the notion of freedom is evoked.

Corvino ended his opening remarks by saying that the same people who endorsed anti-sodomy laws and the same people who opposed same-sex marriage say they are all about freedom. In his eyes, this instead sounds like religious privilege or “the right to discriminate without impunity.”

Working from an Aristotelian explanation of ethics and politics, Anderson stated that politics is about the common good, which is pluralistic in its nature, meaning there are many ways to achieve the good life. In this view, the government’s role is to create a structure where people can pursue their vocation freely.

Anderson states that religious liberty is about the government giving people space to live their religious life so as to pursue these goods. Religious liberty is protected by outlawing direct intentional burdens on religion, and requiring that incidental burdens on religion deserve heightened scrutiny when examined by courts. It also is protected by special exemptions.

Clarifying his position, Anderson stated that this governmental protection is necessary due to religion being a “good of the conscience,” which is fragile in nature, for it cannot be taken back once it is broken or lost. For example, a doctor forced to perform an abortion against their beliefs cannot be at peace with God even if they pray harder than usual. Their conscience has been harmed and no reparation from the government can fix that.

Anderson argued that there are no absolutes when it comes to religious liberty, and that the government is not picking winners and losers. The worrisome idea of “religious privilege” presented by Corvino will not arise unless certain Christians are hypocrites and do not, for example, defend Muslims when their mosques are blocked from being built.

As Anderson noticed he was running out of time, he concluded with a broader point, emphasizing that at Notre Dame, students are the future leaders of both the state and the church, and the continuation of this discussion rests on their shoulders.

Corvino rebutted with a similar emphasis on the importance and challenge of dialogue on religious liberty in today’s political landscape: “We need something better than talking points and Twitter wars, because the devil is in the details.”

Claire Marie Kuhn is a junior majoring in political science with minors in Peace Studies and Business Economics. She enjoys long afternoon naps and iced green tea lattes. To talk with her over one of those lattes, contact her at ckuhn1@nd.edu.