The Irony in the “Religious Liberty” Argument


The nine most terrifying words in the English language, are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help. – Ronald Reagan

There’s an irony embedded in the outraged responses of the “religious liberty” crowd to the executive order signed by President Obama on Monday: if religious organizations want to discriminate against LGBT citizens in their hiring and staffing decisions, they remain perfectly free to do so. All they have to do is turn down federal money.

There is some precedent for this. Back in 1984, around the time that Reagan was maligning government help, two Christian colleges were fighting the federal government over Title IX regulations and reporting. When the Supreme Court sided with the government in Grove City College v. Bell, Michigan’s Hillsdale College immediately began declining all forms of federal aid. Grove City College, in western Pennsylvania, soon followed suit, and both schools continue to reject federal money to this day.

Free to run their organizations as they see fit, they are also free from government dependence. Even if you disagree on the particulars, you have to respect the consistency.

These days, there is reason for skepticism whenever “religious liberty” clamors to the fore. Researchers have found, unsurprisingly, that frames touting liberties and rights serve as rhetorical veils, allowing “ideologically extreme candidates to hide in public sight, appearing to be something different than they are and much more acceptable than they otherwise would be.”

Though the makers of these arguments persistently bill themselves as freedom fighters holding the line against the forces of tyranny, the truth of the matter is generally simpler and less exciting: they mostly just want continued access to taxpayers’ money. If it’s true that government help is terrifying, there are other models to follow.