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O we of little faith

CARSON CITY

It’s something of an irony that — in a nation where the Constitution prohibits establishing a state religion — we’ve spent so much time during the 2013 Legislature talking about religion.

Faith played a key role in the debate over a constitutional amendment to allow gay marriage. Witnesses cited the Bible repeatedly during hearings before both the Senate and the Assembly, and some senators did the same when casting votes against the resolution.

One committee chairman admonished the crowd that the debate wasn’t about the Bible. But he was wrong: Of course it’s about the Bible. But more important, it’s about whether a particular interpretation of the Bible should guide public policy or not.

We heard even more about religion last week, when an Assembly committee took up Senate Bill 192, the Nevada Preservation of Religious Freedom Act.

That bill — with a long list of bipartisan sponsors and co-sponsors — would heighten the legal standard under which laws that affect religion are judged in court. Under the bill, the government is prohibited from “substantially burdening” the exercise of religion, and if it does, if must show that the law in question furthers a compelling government interest and is done in the least intrusive way possible.

The bill doesn’t grant any new rights; it just changes the way judges look at the case if somebody claims an infringement on their rights.

Opponents worried the law would allow doctors to refuse to perform abortions, pharmacists to refuse to provide certain prescription medication, or be used to justify discrimination in public accommodations. And after the struggles to implement the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — in which elaborate procedures were created to allow employees of Catholic organizations to get coverage for birth control — those concerns are not far-fetched.

I’m certainly not one to encourage discrimination against people of faith. This is a big country, and there are a lot of people with a lot of different ideas about God. And this country was founded, in part, on the idea that all of those people could live together in harmony under a government that would not persecute anyone because of their beliefs.

But it’s equally important to understand government may not enshrine those beliefs into law, nor allow them to influence public policy to deny people who don’t share a particular faith to suffer the loss of their own rights.

Take gay marriage. Catholics, Mormons and many Christian denominations believe marriage should be reserved for one man and one woman. But many people — including members of those faiths, by the way — don’t believe that. So what do we do? The compromise struck by the Nevada Legislature is to allow the state to recognize same-gender marriage, but not force churches or clergy to conduct gay weddings if they object.

But can the owner of a wedding chapel deny the use of that public accommodation to a gay couple, based on religion? The law says no, any more than a diner could refuse to serve minorities or a company could decide not to hire women.

Catholics also oppose birth control. But should a Catholic pharmacist be able to refuse to fill a prescription for birth control pills or the so-called morning-after pill, based on his or her religious faith? The answer ought to be no.

That’s not a burden to faith, as much as a recognition that the rights of individuals in an officially secular society to control their lives shouldn’t be subordinated to an individual’s religious belief, no matter how deeply held.

Finding that balance is not always easy and will always be fraught with controversy. Let’s hope that, if it ultimately passes, the new Preservation of Religious Freedom Act doesn’t intrude upon the duty of the government to provide liberty and justice for all.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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