The latest darling of the 24 hour news cycle today brings us to the state of Indiana. On March 26, 2015 Governor Mike Pence signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In the last 4 days the reaction has been strong on both sides. Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who asks this, but what does the law actually do? Glad you asked. You can find the text of the law here. Props to the Legal Information Institute housed at the law school of Cornell University for providing the text of this law.
The law states that if you believe homosexual relationships are sinful on religious grounds you should not be required to do business with homosexuals. Proponents of this law point to a bakery in Indianapolis called 111 Cakery. In 2014 a gay couple asked the bakery to provide the cake for their commitment ceremony (marriage was not legal at the time). The owners refused on the grounds that their religious beliefs prohibited them from participating in what they felt was a sinful act. The bakery has since gone out of business.
The RFRA states that religious freedom is a right granted in the U.S. Constitution. It further states that laws that are neutral toward religion may burden religious exercise and these burdens should not be in place unless there is a compelling justification.
In other words, government can pass a law that does not appear to violate someone’s religious beliefs and may yet nonetheless do so. In those cases there needs to be an exemption that does not compel someone to do something that violates his or her religious beliefs.
That sounds fine in the abstract but not in the execution. I dug into the text of this law and found this definition of “religious exercise”:
The term “religious exercise” includes any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief. The use, building, or conversion of real property for the purpose of religious exercise shall be considered to be religious exercise of the person or entity that uses or intends to use the property for that purpose.
Individual religious exercise, therefore, does not require the backing of an existing denomination. You can be as racist, misogynist, homophobic or just plain mean as you want and claim religious exercise, even if your faith doesn’t.
Proponents of this law insist this is about religious freedom and not about discrimination. Since I’ve spent virtually all of my adult life in the field of religion I’m sure they take my support for granted.
They shouldn’t. I grew up in the South and witnessed discrimination from an early age. I also witnessed religious people who used faith to justify discrimination and were just as shameless. They argued that God justified segregation by claiming that those of African descent were the children of Ham described in Genesis 9:25.
Today almost nobody will admit to finding this racism acceptable but 50 years ago many did. Hopefully 50 years from now nobody will point to religious beliefs to justify homophobia, but that won’t happen unless we stand up today to condemn the RFRA.
Governor Pence and nearly everyone who is running for the Republican nomination for President swears this isn’t about discrimination but we’re not fooled. Homophobia is rapidly declining in the population but those who hide behind religion still control a disproportionate share of funding for candidates. We need to stand up for the inclusion that all legitimate religions profess.
Let’s all work to make homophobia just as distasteful as racial discrimination.