Freedom of Religion, and Other Quaint Notions

March 14, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington.--The latest twist in the trivialization of the ''civil rights'' agenda began in Massachusetts when two brothers, Paul and Ronald Desilets of Turner Falls, refused to rent an apartment to a young woman who said she would be sharing it with her ''live-in boyfriend.'' Both Desiletses are devout Roman Catholics who believe that renting to an unmarried cohabiting couple would compromise their faith by making them complicit in fornication.

An old law still on the Massachusetts books makes fornication a crime (punishable by three months in jail or a $30 fine). But a recent state civil-rights law forbids discrimination on the basis of all the usual things, including ''marital status.''

Now, the law against fornication -- sexual intercourse between people not married to each other -- may seem quaint in an age when there are no longer enough forests to produce sufficient wood for all the stocks that would be needed to punish all the sinners who have violated the law. But even if you believe that a law not enforced loses its validity, Massachusetts courts believe such laws remain permissible expressions of public values.

The Desiletses say enforcement of the anti-discrimination statute against them, in favor of the unmarried couple, would infringe their constitutional right to the ''free exercise'' of religion. The state, with the awful literalness of the fanatic, says: The anti-discrimination law is the law. The Desiletses respond: Read the wretched thing. It forbids discrimination on the basis of a particular ''status.''

But it is conduct they object to. They are willing to rent to people of all faiths and pigmentations, single, married or divorced. But it is, they say, a bit thick for the state to pretend that it has a more compelling interest in helping unmarried cohabiting couples find apartments than in protecting the First Amendment freedom of people to practice their religion.

It is, the Desiletses say, passing strange for the state to argue that they forfeit their right to the free exercise of religion just because the state says their understanding of their religious duties conflicts with a state regulation in a commercial context. It is particularly strange because Massachusetts' constitution stipulates such vigorous protection of religious belief and behavior.

It says no person shall be ''hurt, molested or restrained, in his person, liberty or estate, for worshiping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience, or for his religious profession or sentiments; provided he doth not disturb the public peace. . . .'' The state, acting on the contemporary liberal notion that more important than what people do is that whatever they do should be compulsory, suggests anarchy may ensue if the Desiletses are not broken to the saddle of the state.

The state suggests that this case concerns mere commercial behavior, and that the protection of ''free exercise of religion'' extends only to rituals and services. The Desiletses believe the exercise of their religion must involve striving to be obedient to God in every aspect of their lives.

The Desiletses' opponents, in their ardor for a court order compelling the Desiletses to disregard their faith, have even tried the argument that protecting the Desiletses' free exercise of religion, as they understand it, would violate the constitutional prohibition of the ''establishment of religion.'' That argument would make meaningless the protection of ''free exercise.''

The Desiletses are not trying to force their religious beliefs on anyone. The state is trying to force contemporary sexual values on them. And as to the state's suggestion that the Desiletses' refusal to rent to the unmarried couple constitutes a ''disturbance of the peace,'' the state should take two aspirins and a nap.

The Desiletses cite a passage from the new book ''The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion'' by Stephen Carter of Yale Law School:

''In our sensible zeal to keep religion from dominating our politics, we have created a political and legal culture that presses the religiously faithful to be other than themselves, to act publicly, and sometimes privately as well, as though their faith does not matter to them.''

The protection of the free exercise of religion expresses a political philosophy: Government should behave with humility and restraint because its proper reach is limited by superior values. But Massachusetts, once a cradle of American liberty, is behaving as badly as some of its earliest residents did, with the Puritans' bullying disrespect for the individual's rightful sphere of privacy.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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