Do Conservatives Like The Sutherland Institute Really Believe In “Personal Freedom”

Groups like The Sutherland Institute are all too eager these days to jump on the conservative talking points band wagon and launch into tirades about “personal freedom.” But do their own actions actually reflect those beliefs?

Personal freedoms are what make this country great. We can walk down the street without fear of unlawful detention, speak out against our elected officials without fear of reprisals, and decide for ourselves what we want to do with our lives. It’s the foundation of the American way of life, and we at the Alliance for a Better UTAH are always willing to stand up and protect them.

If you believe the stereotypical Left vs Right arguments about “big government,” then our beliefs about personal freedoms would put us squarely in the corner with conservative organizations like the Sutherland Institute. But do those stereotypes reflect the reality of the Right’s beliefs, or are the conservative groups actually the ones advocating for more government control over our lives? The Left uses government to create standards and safety, programs designed to provide the individual freedom to pursue your goals without fear of being quashed by large interests too powerful for an individual to overcome. By that same token, the Right uses government as an agency of control, forcing compliance on the individual while limiting opportunity to the select few.

In a recent article on their website, Sutherland’s Director of Family and Society, William Duncan, wrote a scathing rant against divorce, and encouraged Utah to make it as difficult as possible for two people to obtain a divorce.

This past legislative session, Representative Val Peterson (R, Orem), working closely with the Sutherland Institute, was successful with his bill that creates a legally-mandated 90 day waiting period between the time when a couple files for divorce, and when the divorce can be granted. Peterson’s public argument was that if Utah made divorce more difficult, fewer couples would actually go through with it, as if divorcing couples are making a rash decision. In the real world, of course, the rash decision may have been when they decided to get married after dating for only 2 weeks, yet he isn’t advocating for a pre-marriage waiting period, only for punitive measures when they reach the point of divorce.

The merits of divorce aside, let’s consider solely the idea of government taking such an active role in the decisions a couple makes with regard to their marriage. Is it really the proper role (to borrow the conservative rhetoric for a moment) of a small and minimal government to tell two people that they need to stay together? Divorces are never pretty, involve a lot of heartbreak and anguish, and should be a decision that is not taken lightly—but that decision is one for the couple to decide, not the Sutherland Institute or the Utah Legislature.

The line does not stop at divorce either. Sutherland has also recently condemned the ruling of a Federal Judge who ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional (the 3rd judge to do so). If you aren’t familiar with DOMA, this 1996 law passed by Congress states that even if states decide for themselves to legalize same-sex marriages, those couples who are legally married in those states will still not receive any of the thousand federal rights and benefits that are granted to opposite-sex married couples. While Sutherland and other groups may be opposed to equal rights for lgbt citizens, their principles of “states’ rights” fly out the window, outlining the obvious hypocritical point that arch-conservatives really only believe in “states’ rights” as long as the states agree with them.

The Sutherland Institute and similar groups spend days on end preaching to us about the advantages of personal freedom, how the free market fixes all. If the free-market and personal freedom is good enough for energy and environmental policy, why isn’t it good enough for marriage? Again, the extreme right wants to regulate morality—their morality—while simultaneously preaching market freedom and personal responsibility. Well, which is it? Either you believe in allowing the people to make decisions for themselves or you don’t.

If conservative groups are going to continue claiming to be the voice for “personal freedom,” then we suggest they step up and act like it, rather than shoveling empty words while in reality placing a heavier and heavier government footprint in the homes of the people.

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