Libertarians Debate Religious Freedom (VIDEO)

Did you know there was a Libertarian Party presidential debate last week?

I don’t blame you if you didn’t, as the mainstream media all but ignored it — and maybe justifiably since the Libertarians have zero chance at winning the presidency. That being said, the debate was very interesting. Several different issues of interest to us here at The Pulse 2016 were discussed, including abortion and religious freedom.

Three candidates participated: former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who ran as the Libertarian Party nominee in 2012; tech entrepreneur John McAfee; and Austin Petersen, a 35-year-old, libertarian blogger/policy wonk who could easily pass for Marco Rubio.

On religious freedom, a sharp contrast emerged between Johnson, who wants to force religious dissenters to take part in marriage ceremonies, bake cakes for gay weddings, etc., and Petersen, who argued for conscience protections for people of faith:

PETERSEN: I just want to say that, you know, yes, Governor Johnson has stated that he does side with him [Bernie Sanders] on social issues, and we had a big kerfuffle in Oregon last week because Governor Johnson has stated that he believes that bakers should be forced to bake wedding cakes for people they disagree with — homosexual couples. And this is a big problem because we’re running for President as a Libertarian…

STOSSEL: But is he correct in quoting you?

JOHNSON: Yes, but I think that if you discriminate on the basis of religion, I think that is a black hole. Look, I think you should be able to discriminate for stink, or you not wearing shoes, or whatever, but I’ll tell you what, if we discriminate on the basis of religion, to me, that’s doing harm to a big class of people —

PETERSEN: Should a Jewish baker be required to bake a Nazi wedding cake?

JOHNSON: I think Muslims right now in this country — I think Muslims in this country would be banned by all sorts of businesses right now because it would be the popular thing to do.

STOSSEL: But should a Jewish baker have to bake the cake for the Nazi wedding?

JOHNSON: That would be my contention, yes. And the example I cited was, how about, the example I cited was how about the utility, the utility that is privately owned, and because it’s the only market that I have to buy my electricity, they’re going to cut me off for religious reasons.

STOSSEL: Mr. McAfee, you get a chance to weigh in here.

MCAFEE: Well, if you’re the only baker in town, it may be a problem. But no one is forcing you to buy anything or choose one place over another. This is the issue. So why should I be forced to do anything if I am not harming you? And am I harming you by not selling you something? No. It’s my choice to sell and it’s your choice to buy.

JOHNSON: Well, I vetoed hate crime legislation in New Mexico, I mean, look, prosecute me on the basis of the crime, not my intention. I think that religion is a black hole in that same category, that if you’re going to start discriminating against people because of religion, you’re going to find a whole class of people discriminated against and you may be included in that. So it’s harm to others.

PETERSEN: This betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the free market. You have to allow the marketplace to work. The government cannot stamp out bigotry. The government is not supposed to make us into better people. That’s not what the United States was founded on. The United States was founded so that we could be whatever we wanted…

Gov. Johnson’s argument didn’t make very much sense. Was he arguing in favor of religious protections for consumers but not sellers? He didn’t seem to understand the issue. Petersen did a great job of highlighting Johnson’s flawed premise by proposing another example — arguably a more sympathetic example to gay marriage-supporting Libertarians — where a Jewish baker would be forced to bake a Nazi wedding cake. Johnson, oblivious to the grave consequences of what he was proposing, replied by saying yes, he would indeed force the Jewish seller to bake an anti-Semitic cake for a Nazi consumer.

It’s hard to see that position as “libertarian.” Petersen definitely deserves credit for picking a fight on this issue.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see a policy-driven discussion on religious freedom make its way into the national debate, instead of being reserved for insignificant third party debates that no one watches?

Jon Schweppe is Communications Director for the American Principles Project and can be followed on Twitter @JonSchweppe.