An incredibly flexible interpretation of what constitutes "religious persecution" may not have much to do with actual religious persecution, but it sure does play well to the cheap seats. At least that's what Sen. Ted Cruz is probably banking on as he tries to refocus his campaign as a bid for "religious freedom" and his own campaign identity as a "religious crusader."
Cruz's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination is circling the drain these days. See, as we've previously noted, Cruz made his political name by appealing to the far-right-leaning conservatives in his party, but many of them have dropped Cruz as they've slipped into the thrall of one Donald Trump. This has left Cruz needing to find a new tactic, and he's worked hard to set himself up as the champion of "religious liberty."
In line with his abrupt shift toward wooing the Evangelical right, over the weekend Cruz dropped a new campaign ad featuring Americans who have been "persecuted" for their, ahem, beliefs. The thing is, when you unpack these stories, they have very little to do with actual religious persecution. The video fails to mention that none of the stories chronicled have anything to do with religious persecution as the Pilgrims understood it. In fact, these are all re-imagined self-justifying tales from people who tried to hide behind "religious" beliefs to avoid doing their jobs when the requirements included dealing with gay people.
The video, dropped over the weekend, features different people sitting in front of a camera while they tell their own stories of "religious persecution," mostly in voice-over. There's a lot of talk about God and how good their decidedly Old Testament-style God has been. That's all fine. Things don't really go off the rails until they start sharing what they actually did to merit appearing in this advertisement, their own "Stand for Religious Liberty." That's when things get wonky.
"Today, the United States government is forcing people of faith to violate their beliefs on sexuality and marriage," the video states.
Um, right here we've already got a disconnect, because as far as we know, the United States government isn't going from house to house, marching people out and forcing them to make out with someone of the same sex or forcing people who happen to be of the same sex to get hitched. All that the United States Supreme Court has done is say that gay couples have a right to marry.
If that one statement wasn't bad enough to grab our attention, the following "stories" told by these "victims" of "religious persecution" sure did.
In the video, Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Phillip Monk claimed that he was "relieved of duty for expressing a traditional view of marriage." Except that's not what actually happened, according to the Huffington Post. In fact, Monk was overseeing a staff sergeant who insisted on telling trainees how much he hated gay people. Monk was told to make the guy stop — officers aren't allowed to push their religious beliefs on trainees — and Monk refused, apparently because he is also not okay with gay people. When Monk wouldn't do what his commanding officer told him to and put the staff sergeant in place, he was punished for failing to follow orders — which makes Monk's claim that he was "relieved of duty" because of his religious beliefs even more specious. When you won't follow orders, that makes you a bad soldier. When those orders are to stop your fellow government employee from spewing anti-LGBT hate on the job, and then you refuse because you agree with your colleague, that makes you a bigot, not a hero.
Next up, we have Atlanta Fire Rescue Department Chief Kelvin Cochran, who says in Cruz's new campaign video that he was fired for his "Christian beliefs on homosexuality." Now, firing anyone for his privately held beliefs is wrong. This is, after all, the United States, where you can believe whatever you like as long as you don't go around trying to force other people to believe it. The thing is, Cochran wasn't — despite his claims in the video — innocently walking around believing with all his heart that marriage should only be between one man and one woman, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
No, what got Cochran into trouble was a book he wrote that made a lot of, shall we say, interesting statements, like the one where he defined "uncleanness" as “whatever is opposite of purity, including sodomy, homosexuality, lesbianism, pederasty, bestiality, all other forms of sexual perversion.” And what got Cochran into trouble wasn't simply that he wrote such a book, but that he brought it to work and gave it to his firefighters, despite the fact that they hadn't asked for a copy. Again, this was a guy pushing extremely discriminatory views in his place of work to the point that he was eventually fired for it. That's not being fired for "Christian beliefs." That's being fired for being so insistent about your beliefs to the point it makes the people working with you uncomfortable. As far as we know, being offensive isn't technically any type of actual recognized religion.
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Then Barronelle Stutzman shared her story. Stutzman is a Washington state florist who refused to provide the flowers for the wedding of a longtime customer and his partner because of her "relationship with Jesus Christ." The thing is, as far as we know, Jesus isn't really that controlling about stuff like doing your job and making floral arrangements for whoever comes into your florist shop and orders them. Stutzman got a fine from Washington state for $1,000 and $1 in court fees for discriminating against her customers. She warned in the video that if it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone. She is correct on that point. Any person who discriminates against someone could be facing similar fines should that person try to use religious beliefs to justify not doing his or her job.
Aaron and Melissa Klein claim in Cruz's new video that they lost their bakery, Sweet Cakes by Melissa, after they stood up for their beliefs. Once again, in reality that is a highly creative interpretation of what actually happened. In fact, the Kleins refused to make a cake for a lesbian couple, which was a violation of Oregon's antidiscrimination law. The couple complained to the state and the Kleins responded by posting the couple's personal information online. The Kleins claim they were "persecuted," but in fact it was the women they refused to bake a cake for who got the nastiest end of the stick. The couple received death threats and ultimately fled the state. They won their case for discrimination against the Kleins, receiving $135,000 in damages.
Meanwhile, the Kleins got $400,000 in donations through Kickstarter. So why are they upset again? A couple of bakers decided they couldn't simply bake a cake for two customers, and in the end they ended up with more money than the wronged customers ever saw. Also, as far as we know, religious liberty is simply defined as the right to practice your religion without interference from the government. Refusing to serve certain customers, however, was in direct violation of the state law.
As a much vaunted constitutional scholar, we're betting Cruz must know he's bending the concept of "religious liberty" to its breaking point in trying to become the guy who speaks for the religious right in his party — it's the only party identity left open to him at this point, thanks to Trump. But Cruz's new campaign video is just a reminder that true religious liberty is the right to practice a religion without any interference from government — a right that doesn't in any way cover people who want to use their belief systems as a license to discriminate in public life.