The Thoughts and Musings of Tom Allain

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it

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Archive for the ‘Justice Chronicles’ Category

The Justice Chronicles, Volume 29: Do We Need to Revisit the Limits of Free Speech in the Age of Twitter?

Friday, August 18th, 2017

We Americans revere few things more than Freedom of Speech. We are told in the First Amendment of our Constitution that “Congress shall make no law …abridging the freedom of speech.”

Alas, it’s a right that’s little understood. It means you cannot be arrested for what you say. But it’s often misinterpreted to mean you can say whatever you want without consequences. Here’s my favorite example: in 2010 the popular radio advice hostess Laura Schlessinger came under criticism for her use of the “N word” on her show. When an African American caller (in an interracial marriage) objected to her use of that word, Laura responded: “If you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry out of your race.” You can read about it here. After being criticized for her remarks she appeared on Larry King Live and demanded return of her “first amendment rights.” She believed that freedom of speech protected her from criticism for her words. She didn’t understand that others have the same right to express their opinions, and she was not Constitutionally protected from having her feelings hurt.

But from the beginning we’ve struggled with limits to the rights of free speech. Can you say anything? This debate goes all the way back to President Adam’s infamous Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 which criminalized criticism of the government.

I have no desire to give an entire history of this debate, but we all look to the 1919 Supreme Court decision of Schneck v. the United States. In his majority decision Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote this: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater and causing a panic.”

This make sense. You don’t have the right to speech that directly causes injury to others. But there is also legal precedent that you don’t have the right to prohibit speech that offends you. Many of us remember well the issue of flag burning. In 1989 the Supreme Court decided, in the case of Texas v. Johnson, that burning the American flag is protected speech.

But what about today? If you burn a flag across the street of a VFW hall you’re certainly going to anger the veterans gathered but we can all agree that nobody is in danger. That’s changed.

We’re all still talking about the events last week in Charlottesville but I heard a story that frightens me. The marchers were filmed by many who posted pictures on Twitter, with the hope that the marchers could be called out and recognized for their racist views.

That may be OK with many of us, but it’s not OK with Kyle Quinn. Kyle works for the University of Arkansas and committed the unforgiveable sin of looking like someone who marched in Charlottesville. In an excellent article you can see that someone saw a picture of someone who looked like Kyle and identified him as Kyle (even though Kyle was 900 miles away in Little Rock, Arkansas).

Kyle got a call from someone at the university who verified that he was in Little Rock and suggested that Kyle’s life just got more complicated. He was right.

Soon his Twitter account, email account, etc. blew up. His home address was posted and Kyle and his wife retreated to a friend’s house out of fear for their safety.

I write this because (much like those in the theater when someone shouts “fire”) Twitter, Facebook, and other social media make all of us potential victims of danger. Kyle well knows that a someone with a gun and an agenda (and his home address) may pose exactly the same danger to him as to the theater goers who are stampeded after someone yells fire.

I love freedom of speech as much as anyone. I revel in my ability to disagree with, and even lampoon, politicians I don’t agree with. But I don’t think our founders intended to protect those whose words lead directly to mobs who show up with clubs and torches. And I don’t think they intended to protect the 21st century mobs who traded in clubs and torches for Twitter accounts.

So where do we go from here? Whoever misidentified Kyle made an honest mistake, but hate groups created the environment that made this possible. The march on Charlottesville was organized by a group called Unite the Right.

Previous generations looked on groups like this as reprehensible but protected by the First Amendment. Today we need to look on them as hate groups that can no longer hide behind free speech.

The Justice Chronicles, Volume 28. The Money Chronicles, Volume 13: At Last Kansas Can Begin Its Recovery

Friday, June 9th, 2017

On October 31, 2014 I blogged about how Kansas Governor Sam Brownback signed into law a massive state tax cut. In that post I spoke about how Governor Brownback (and many others) hitched their wagon to “supply side economics.” Simply put, he claimed that if he made massive tax cuts (for both individuals and business) they would put massive amounts of money “back in the pockets” of individuals and businesses. They would then spend that money and so stimulate the economy that even reduced tax rates would bring in more money and put the state on Easy Street.

Unfortunately, supply side economics behaves much like the Atkins Diet: it appeals not because it works, but because it sounds good. Telling overweight people that they can eat bacon omelettes and still lose weight feels just too good to pass up. And telling Americans that they can pay less in taxes and live on Easy Street does the same thing.

OK, did it work? The Kansas Legislature didn’t think so. This week they passed a bill to repeal the tax cuts, and overrode the Governor’s veto. Interestingly enough the legislature is controlled by Republicans.

The tax cuts did nothing except bleed the state dry. Hardest his were Kansas’ 286 school districts. The Kansas State Court of Appeals demanded that the state provide adequate funds for public schools last March.

Even conservative Republicans recognized they needed to bring in more money to educate their children and grandchildren. Even they knew that Kansas’ future depends on an educated citizenry.

I’m writing this because I care about children in Kansas, but I also care about children in all of America. President Trump has proposed a tax plan that also massively cuts taxes and revenues.

I guess he thinks he can do the same thing and get a different result. The rest of us call this dysfunctional thinking.

I pray Congress don’t make the same mistake Kansas made.

The Justice Chronicles, Volume 28: We Should All Be Concerned About the Holman Rule

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

The last few months I’ve written extensively on President Elect Trump out of a concern over where our nation is heading. I’ve also wanted to chronicle his Presidency for future reference; I got the idea from James Fallows who wrote The Daily Trump.

But in the last few days I’ve come across something that concerns me and it comes from the House of Representatives, something called The Holman Rule.

In 1876 the House passed a resolution (the Holman Rule) that allows individual members of Congress to target individual federal employees and reduce their pay to $1.00 per year (effectively firing them). On January 3rd this Congress voted to bring it back. Proponents claim this will allow the firing of dishonest, ineffective or lazy federal workers.

My fear, and the fear of others is that individual members of Congress will use this rule as a way of settling scores.

Career federal employees are often tasked with delivering bad news to elected officials. In it’s January 10th edition, The Washington Post spoke about Arthur Katz, who worked for FEMA, testified before a Senate subcommittee. He said: “I testified before a Senate subcommittee regarding the gross mismanagement of FEMA, including our lack of preparedness for natural disasters. My bosses weren’t at all pleased, but my civil service and union protection meant that I couldn’t just be fired. A few months later, Hurricane Andrew hit Florida, and my warnings about FEMA’s problems were proved correct. I kept my job and continued in federal service until my retirement.” Imagine if his bosses at FEMA were able to ask Congress to have him fired?

The General Accountability Office (or GAO) is tasked with overseeing that federal monies are spent properly. Since their job is essentially telling Congress when money isn’t being spent properly, can we imagine any scenario where they will feel their job is secure?

Can anyone feel they can speak truth to power when power has shown its eagerness to stop them?

The Election Chronicles, Volume 27: It’s Finally Here

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

For the third election in a row I’m live blogging. I normally start at 5PM Pacific Time (where I love), 8PM Eastern Time, and 1AM Greenwich Mean Time. I try to update this each hour. It’s been a long race, and a difficult one to watch. There have been hundreds of polls, but like four years ago I’ve been following Nate Silver at Five Thirty Eight. He was spot on four years ago in his predictions, and as of right now he believes Secretary Clinton has a 71.4% chance of winning the elction.

5:00PM Pacific Time, 8:00PM Eastern, 0100 GMT. I’m getting my information from National Public Radio. There are no surprises. At this point it appears that Hillary will pick up the following states: Vermont (3), Massachusetts (11), New Jersey (14), Maryland (10), Washington D.C. (3), and Delaware (3). Donald Trump should pick up Oklahoma (7), Indiana (11), Kentucky (8), and West Virginia (5). If my math is correct that gives Hillary 44 electoral votes and Donald 31. But the night is young.

The candidates always claim they are campaigning in all 50 states, but that’s not true. Most states were safe for one of the candidates and the race will come down to a few battleground states. I’m looking at Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida. I don’t have information on Pennsylvania, but as of right now Ohio shows Hillary ahead, 52.7% to 43.7%. Florida also shows Hillary ahead 49.2% to 47.8% and North Carolina has Hillary ahead 51.8% to 45.7%. These battlegrounds are far from settled and it’s much too early to read too much into these numbers.

I didn’t think my home state of Virginia would be a battleground, but as of now Donald is ahead 52.4% to 42.8%. That’s a surprise.

It’s now 5:50 and there’s a few updates. Hillary has picked up Rhode Island (4); Donald has picked up Tennessee (11), South Carolina (9) and Alabama (9). These are hardly surprising and as of right now Donald has 60 electoral votes to Hillary’s 48.

6:00PM Pacific Time, 9:00PM Eastern Time, 0200 GMT. This is the point in the evening when the Republican candidate rises fastest. It’s holding true here. Donald has been predicted the winner in Texas (38), Kansas (6), Wyoming (3), North Dakota (3), South Dakota (3), and Nebrasda (5). Hillary has picked up Illinois (20), New York (29), and Connecticut (7). If you look at the electoral map, Trump leads 129-97. Four years ago I was nervous and probably shouldn’t have been. Donald’s biggest state (Texas) is already in his category while Hillary’s biggest state (California) has polls open for another 2 hours. I’ll keep you posted.

I’m writing now at about 6:30 and at this time four years ago, Mitt Romney was leading President Obama 153 to 123. By about 7:00 it turned around and stayed there. I can only pray the pattern continues.

Last hour I spoke about Virginia. I grew up in Prince William County and it was pretty Republican when I lived there. It’s now more Democratic and I couldn’t be more proud. That said, I assumed Virginia would be safe for Hillary. But as I write this Donald is ahead 47.6% to 47.3%. Hillary had narrowed the gap but it’s hard to believe Donald will carry Virginia. If he does, Hillary probably needs to beat expectations somewhere else. I pray she does.

7:00PM Pacific Time, 10:00PM Eastern Time, 0300GMT. I promised myself I wouldn’t worry too much about the results, but I may have to break that promise. Since my last update Donald has won Missouri (10) and Louisiana (8) while Hillary picks up New Mexico (5).

My only note of optimism comes from the fact that Hillary is ahead in Virginia by a razor thin margin (47.7% to 47.2%). Hillary is trending ahead and at this late point the trend rarely reverses.

My pessimism is fed in the states of Michigan and Wisconsin. All the polls I watched had Hillary winning by a small but consistent margin. Most of the votes are not counted, but the early polling does not look good. This may be a long night.

Ok, it’s 7:40 and it appears that Hillary has won Virginia. This doesn’t guarantee she’ll win, but it makes it much better that she won’t lose. Keep posted.

8:00 Pacific Time, 11:00 Eastern Time, 0400GMT. OK by this time I hoped to declare Hillary the winner and go to bed. This isn’t going to happen. Donald picked up Montana (3), North Carolina (15) and Idaho (4) and Hillary picked up California (55). It’s going to be a long night. My apologies to the patients I visit tomorrow.

The Justice Chronicles, Volume 26: What’s the Ethical Answer Here?

Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

Nancy and I are currently on vacation in Boston and we’re staying in a nice hotel. When we arrived there was a tag on our door, much like the “do not disturb” sign we’re used to seeing. But this one told us that if we are willing to forego housekeeping service the next day we’d get a gift card for $5.00 in the hotel gift store.

The catch is this: we have to hang it on the doorknob by 2AM. Clearly the early time gave the hotel management the opportunity to call off part of the housekeeping staff and not pay them. In a sense it makes the entire housekeeping staff per diem.

But it also makes good environmental sense. They won’t use water to wash sheets and towels or electricity to vacuum the room.

So as someone who cares about the earth and also cares about economic justice, I’m in a bit of a dilemna. The $5.00 doesn’t affect my decision but I am chewing on deciding between the earth and the housekeepers.

Of course I’m aware that the hotel chain has created this dilemna.

I’m open to feedback on what you think of this.

The Justice Chronicles, Volume 25: An Interesting Theological Questions

Friday, September 18th, 2015

My friend James wrote a fascinating question to Facebook and tagged me. I’ve been thinking about it since I read it but I feel my answer is too long to post to Facebook. I decided to answer James here.

James is an incredibly kind and generous person and late last year he entered the world of fatherhood. Here is his post:

Theological quandary I’ve had recently:

I believe that God is all-loving. We sing “God is love” in church. And the Gospel of John says that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. That is a lot of love for God’s creation.

But think about this from Jesus’ point of view: Was God showing love to him by sending him here to live, spread the word, die and be resurrected? Seems like a bit of a crappy thing to do: hey, I’m going to send you to some people who will put you to death, but it’s ok you’ll get better because as part of the Trinity, you’re eternal.

There is a parallel to this in the story of Abraham being tested by God in the near-sacrifice of Isaac. In the end, God is satisfied with Abraham’s faith, and spares Isaac (who probably never wanted to go in the wilderness alone with his dad ever again), but with Jesus, where is God’s mercy? or justice? Is this the act of an all-loving God, a single dad to his son?

Or is this a semantic thing? God the Father giving His Son is the same thing as Jesus the Son choosing to go because Trinity.

EDIT: the main point I’m getting at here is whether God truly is all-loving or not, using the act of God giving Jesus to death from Jesus’ POV: Was God all loving to him?

You ask several wonderful, puzzling, frustrating, and eventually faithful questions. Let me see if I can parse this out.

I’m going to start with the Abraham/Isaac question. Nearly everyone who reads this passage from Genesis has the same reaction: horror. How can anyone, especially God, make this demand on a father? And what father would agree to this? I think we all agree that we would’ve had more respect for Abraham if he had told God to go bother someone else.

Fair enough, but in that time the idea of human sacrifice was not unknown. Those who followed pagan gods often saw human sacrifice as something that was demanded of them. The best description I’ve found on this came in the first few pages of James Michener’s book Hawai’i.

I’m not certain that I’m right about this, but I think God was telling Abraham that human sacrifice will no longer be a requirement of his faith. “The pagans do human sacrifice but those who follow me will not. Unlike the pagan gods I find human life to be sacred and will never demand that you kill as a sacrifice.”

That said, I’m troubled by the idea that God let Abraham get that close to sacrificing his own son. Every time I read this passage I wonder if Isaac lived the rest of his life with PTSD.

But I’m also heartened by the reality that the God of Genesis, the Old Testament, and the New Testament does not demand sacrifice. As a matter of fact, Jesus’ ultimate throw down centered on his cleansing of the Temple in Matthew 21:12.

The phrase “throw down” is a modern term and it means this: someone “throws down” when he or she wants to make a point so badly that he (or she) makes a statement with no regard to the consequences. Jesus’ throw down is the last straw that leads to his arrest and execution.

But James, your point is well taken. What do we say about an all loving God who allowed his Son to be killed (and killed in such a horrible way)? We all understand that Jesus couldn’t have been resurrected unless he died, and had he died of natural causes his resurrection would have meant little more than Lazarus’.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us nothing about Jesus before his conception and if we had only those Gospels we could easily make the argument he didn’t exist before then. Only in John’s Gospel is Jesus described as being “in the beginning with God.” Perhaps Jesus “volunteered,” knowing what he was getting into. This doesn’t make his death any more horrible or painful, but it at least gives Jesus the advantage of knowing that it will turn out well in the end.

The Justice Chronicles Volume 24: Obergefell v. Hodges: At Last Marriage is Equal

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

Last month the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that gay couples have a right to marry and any laws that prevented that are unconstitutional. It’s been nearly a month since the ruling came out, but I wanted to read the opinion before writing about it (yes, you can actually contact the public affairs office of the Supreme Court).

People who handicap the Court generally assumed Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayer, and Elana Kagan would vote for marriage equality; Justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito would vote that states should have the right to decide, and that Justice Anthony Kennedy would be the swing vote that would carry the majority.

They were right. Justice Kennedy voted to strike down laws in those states that prohibit gay marriage. He wrote the opinion for the majority. Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito all wrote dissenting opinions.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy spoke of how “the history of marriage is one of both continuity and change.” Furthermore, “[h]istory and tradition guide and discipline the inquiry but do not set its outer boundaries.” He noted that in 1967 the Court struck down laws in much of the South that prohibited interracial marriage. Additionally in 1978 the Court struck down a law in Wisconsin that prohibited men from marrying if they owed child support, and in 1987 they found that prison inmates cannot be prohibited from marrying. The majority finds this case is a continuation of striking down laws that forbid different people from marrying.

The minority argued that while those other cases did strike down laws that prevented certain classes of people to marry, none of them changed the definition of marriage, that being between one man and one woman. Justice Roberts, in particular, felt that there has been a robust and necessary debate in this country on the definition of marriage and this ruling short circuited that debate. Ultimately he wrote that the definition of marriage should be decided by legislation, not judicial decision.

Justice Scalia agreed with Justice Roberts, and added his own concurrence. He found it telling that societies all over the earth and throughout history have defined marriage the same way: one man and one woman, and yet 5 unelected justices change marriage with the flick of a pen.

Justice Thomas wrote the part of the opinion that troubles me the most. The majority opinion speaks of how marriage equality allows the same dignity to homosexual couples that heterosexual couples have been able to take for granted. Justice Thomas argued that the government cannot confer or deny dignity. He wrote: “Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved.” The fact that he is descended from slaves who would doubtless be shocked by this is only part of my disappointment.

Finally, Justice Alito, in addition to concurring with many of the arguments, added this one: this ruling will make it more difficult for those who disagree about gay marriage. He wrote it “will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.” Further, “[r]ecalling the harsh treatment of gays and lesbians in the past, some may think that turnabout is fairplay.” In other words, this means the bullies may now be bullied.

I make no secret of my support for marriage equality. Far from devaluing marriage, I believe this enhances marriage by making it possible for a group that has been previously excluded. I’ve been married for 17 1/2 years and it’s been wonderful. It’s nice to see that our gay brothers and sisters have that open to them also.

By the way, the ban on interracial marriage was struck down 48 years ago. Most Americans now profess agreement with that decision. I pray that in a few years almost nobody will admit to having opposed gay marriage.

The Justice Chronicles, Part 23: Reflections on the Confederate Flag

Saturday, July 4th, 2015

While I was born in Washington D.C. I grew up in Virginia, home to the capital of the Confederacy.

I’ll freely admit that I grew up in Northern Virginia that is in many ways distinct from the rest of the state. My parents, and the parents of most of my friends, came from somewhere else to work for the government, either in uniform or as a civil servant. My southern roots are shallow.

That said, it’s been interesting to listen to the national conversation on the Confederate Battle Flag. There was an official Confederate Flag but it looked too much like the United States Flag and was confusing to Confederate soldiers. The “Stars and Bars” has come to be known as the Confederate Flag.

On April 9, 1965 Robert E. Lee and his Confederate forces surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant and the Confederate States of America ceased to exist.

But the flag didn’t. Many in the South continued to fly the flag for a variety of reasons. Some felt that “the South will rise again” and independence from the United States was only a matter of time. There weren’t many of them, and they really didn’t matter.

The battle flag endured because many in the South wanted to rewrite history. They continue to claim that the Civil War (or “the war between the states” or “the war of Northern aggression”) wasn’t about slavery but about states’ rights and southern heritage. They insist the flag isn’t about racism or exclusion but about celebrating their heritage.

Fair enough, but for the descendants of slaves (like Michelle Obama) and even for those whose ancestors came from Africa after 1865 (like Barack Obama) the battle flag is a symbol of only this: slavery. It harkens to a time when they and their children were owned as property. A time where they were believed to be inferior and unable to care for themselves. A time when it was against the law to teach them to read.

And since 1865 it’s become a symbol of ongoing racism. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the Council of Conservative Citizens insist the battle flag isn’t a symbol of racism while they continue to insist that Americans of African descent are a danger to us all.

The real danger is the ongoing racism and it must stop. And the battle flag must also.

Today is the 239th anniversary of the birth of our nation. Let us all honor the same flag.

The Justice Chronicle, Volume 22: King v. Burwell: What Does It Mean?

Saturday, June 27th, 2015

Thursday morning at breakfast the Today Show broke into its programming to announce a decision in the case of King v. Burwell. By a 6-3 decision the justices found for the defendant.

I’ve been disturbed at the news coverage on this. Virtually all the reporting makes it sound like a boxing match: Who won and who lost. I’m willing to bet that an embarrassingly small percentage of the population could name the case (King v. Burwell) or the issue that the court decided today.

The implications were clear: had the court found for the plaintiff the Affordable Care Act would likely not have been able to survive. So what were the particulars of the case?

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), also called “Obamacare” was signed into law in 2010 and mandated that nearly everyone purchase health insurance. Many of us work for companies that provide us with adequate health insurance, but many companies don’t If you’re a part time or per diem employee you may not get health care from your company. If you work for a small business they may not afford to pay for health insurance. If you’re under 65 and not employed (for any reason) you have nobody to provide you health insurance.

You’ve always been able to buy a health insurance policy on your own, but for many people that was not an option. Premiums were prohibitively high, and you can be denied for a host of pre-existing conditions. I have sleep apnea and before the ACA I would have been excluded from any private health coverage.

The ACA mandated that health insurance companies not exclude anyone for pre-existing conditions. Health insurance companies (rightly) argued that this doesn’t work for them because under this system nobody would buy health insurance until they needed it (much as you can’t buy fire insurance when your house is already on fire). The mandate was necessary as this provided health insurance companies a larger base of customers. That’s the basis of insurance: most people who buy insurance don’t need it and this pays for the minority who does.

But there was still another problem: a large percentage of our population still couldn’t afford to purchase health insurance. We can’t tell people they have to buy health insurance if they simply can’t afford to. Because of this the ACA provided subsidies for people whose earnings fall below a certain level.

The ACA wanted the states to participate in this and made this deal: if your state wishes, it can set up a health insurance exchange. For those eligible for subsidies, the federal government will pick up all of the cost for the first few years and most of the cost from then on. If a state refused to set up an exchange, the federal government would set one up. I believed that most states would see the value in setting up exchanges. I was wrong. Only 16 states set up exchanges and the rest depended on the federal government.

That’s all fine, but here’s where we get into the current lawsuit. Most of us get our health insurance through our employers and our employer pays part of the premium. For people who get their insurance through these exchanges, paying the full premium would be overly burdensome, and the ACA provides subsidies to help people buy insurance. Buried deep in the legislation is the phrase that subsidies are only available to people who purchase their health insurance on an exchange “established by the State.”

The plaintiffs argued that these subsidies are only valid for health insurance exchanges established by one of the 16 states, and that if you live in one of the states that doesn’t run its own exchange, you are not eligible for subsidies.

Frankly that would have sent the entire ACA into a death spiral. People in those 34 states would lose insurance because they couldn’t afford to purchase it. The loss of premiums would have made it much more difficult for insurance companies in those states to continue to provide coverage and many of them would stop providing insurance in those states at all.

In the majority ruling the Court found for the defendants, arguing that if this phrase meant to apply only to those 16 states, the seeds of its own destruction would have been written into the law. In other words this can’t have been the intent of the authors because they never would have written legislation whose implementation was impossible.

Simply put this was the last, desperate act of a group of people who don’t like President Obama, don’t like anything he supports, and hoped against hope that they could convince the Supreme Court to strike it down. Fortunately it didn’t work.

The Justice Chronicles, Volume 21: Discrimination and Homophobia is Alive and Well in Indiana

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

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.