Religion's Monopolies, by Ken Burrows: Freethought Views, June 2022

Religion’s Monopolies

By Ken Burrows

A spokesman from Colorado Christian University was recently quoted as saying the crux of the abortion debate is how to handle the “competing interests” of pregnant women and fetuses. Which sounds reasonable except that such competing interests are too often not that competitive. With abortion, when religious fervor leads to outlawing what should be a woman’s right to a critical health care choice, the interest of the woman no longer competes.

Notably, Roe v Wade does balance competing interests of women and fetuses. But a religion-friendly Supreme Court is poised to do away with that balance, thanks in part to Justice Samuel Alito’s cramped reading of the Constitution and weirdly selective appeals to history.

It's a worrisome trend. With increasing frequency, when an interest based on religious belief is pitted against a contrary interest, religion prevails, holding the equivalent of monopoly power. The imbalance is magnified when one considers other issues where religion’s interests might readily override what should be valid competing interests. The next areas where religion could easily be given monopoly strength by SCOTUS include same-sex marriage, unmarried same-sex intimacy, interracial marriage, and contraception. Religion could quash competing interests in these matters too. Especially if Alito-like thinking carries the day.

Add in transgender rights, which religious operatives are broadly challenging. A recent Alabama law (if it withstands appeal) would make it illegal for doctors to provide gender-affirming care to anyone under age 19, walling off a choice that can be crucial to an affected person’s health. Governor Kay Ivey cited religion in defending the law, saying “the good Lord” made boys and girls the way they are and that’s that. Competing interest be damned.

The Supreme Court has also okayed allowing tax monies to flow to religious schools, never mind the competing interests taxpayers have in not wishing to pay for teaching beliefs they do not hold. SCOTUS has allowed religious adoption/foster agencies to receive tax support even if they refuse to accept LGBTQ parent clients who should have a competing interest in being equally served with public monies.

Finally, consider the issue of medical aid in dying, arguably the most critical personal autonomy right one can imagine—the freedom to end suffering and die with dignity. Conservative religions adamantly oppose this freedom and strive to deny the rights—the competing interests—of others in the process. In a lawsuit filed by a Christian medical association against California’s End of Life Option Act that legalized medical aid in dying, the plaintiffs (who, it should be noted, are never required to directly provide such aid against their moral convictions) repeatedly stress physicians have the right to not even inform patients that medical aid in dying is an option and insist they can also refuse to refer a patient to an alternate accommodating provider. What’s missing in the lawsuit language is any allowance for the competing interests of patients, including patients’ right to know their care options so they can make informed decisions.

When religion’s effective monopoly power routinely tramples competing interests this way, it destroys fairness and freedoms for others. Even an American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, recognized this fact. He observed three decades ago, with these words relevant for today: “Religion is so frequently dangerous to democracy because it introduces absolutism into the realm of relative values.”


Published in the June 6-13 issue of the Colorado Springs Independent with the quotation below.

The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal.”

--- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis