Wednesday, April 8, 2015

On Religious Freedom

[Johnathan Clayborn]

The internet, and the media in general, is buzzing with talk of Indiana and their passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, formally known as SB 568 (not to be confused with the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993). As with many pieces of legislation this bill comes with very heated controversy from both sides of the fence. The reality is that this is very muddy water.

One of the first things that becomes clear is that proponents of the bill, and several media outlets, have suggested that Indiana's RFRA is similar to the federal act passed in 1993 and similar to those in 19 other states. In truth, this is not the case. While other states and the federal government do also have RFRA laws on the books, they are not the same. The biggest difference between the laws is that Indiana's law is much broader and would allow for blatant and widespread discrimination.

Under the provisions of the federal laws, and the laws in many other states, the RFRA could only be used as a defense against a lawsuit by specific people and organizations and within very specific contexts and applications. Under Indiana's version of the bills, those restrictions are removed and anyone is allowed to claim "religious freedom" under any context. Indiana's bill expressly allows for-profit businesses "the free exercise of religion", which is directly contrary to most other states RFRA bills which expressly exclude for-profit businesses from being permitted to exercise this defense.

Most other RFRA bills include verbiage that restricts the defense to actions brought about against an organization by the government. If the government files a lawsuit that says that you can't wear purple shirts to church on Sunday, then the organization can respond with an RFRA defense and argue that such a suit would violate their right to practice their religion. It's very specific in the context of when and how it can be used, and by whom. Indiana's bill opens this defense up for businesses to use in response to lawsuits filed by private citizens.

Let's recap; all other RFRA laws to date expressly forbid for-profit businesses from exercising RFRA as a defense against a lawsuit and confines it to churches and non-profit organizations, but Indiana's bill allows for anyone to use it. All other RFRA bills also limit the use of this defense to litigation brought to bear by the government, but Indiana's bill opens this up to allow for this defense to be used against everyone. These are major differences with far-reaching repercussions.

One particularly muddy consequence of this that will undoubtedly happen, is that this state's law violated federal laws that protect against hate crimes. Even if a person or a business in Indiana uses the RFRA as a defense in a lawsuit, they may still be found guilty of federal crimes for discrimination. This inevitability will almost certainly lead to renewed debates about how much power the federal government should be allowed to exercise over the states and private individuals. The US Supreme Court has not yet made a final ruling on the federal status of same-sex marriages nationally. The general expectation by most legal experts is that this conclusion is inevitable and only a matter of time before it happens. When that happens, if Indiana's bill remains in effect as-written, things will get very complicated.

Legal issues aside, depending on where one stands on the issue, this bill is viewed as either a sword or a shield that will either be used to attack a person's civil liberties, or protect them from unholy sinners. Already one pizzeria has used the RFRA as an excuse to refuse service to a same-sex couple who were trying to hire them to cater their wedding reception. As gay allies began lashing out at the pizzeria online, conservatives in support of the bill rallied to the pizzeria's defense by donating more than $300,000 to it for use in legal defense.

The major proponents of the bill, including some of the lawmakers who tweeted about it during it's passage through the system, are hard-line conservative Christians. They generally believe that the moral fiber of America is becoming degraded by sinners, such as gay couples, and that the homosexual population has a secret agenda to "make everyone okay" with their lifestyle.

Within the United States, the vast majority of people are Christian, according to self-reported studies by the US Census Bureau and Pew Reports. 16.1% of people are unaffiliated with any church (which includes 1.6% who are atheists and 2.4% who are agnostic, and 12.1% who are "spiritual"). 4.7% of the population is "other religions" (which includes 1.7% Jewish, 0.7% Buddhist, and 0.6% Muslim). The remaining 78% are Christian.

This is where is starts to get weird for me. 51.3% of the population are Protestant. 23.9% are Catholic. 1.7% are Mormon. The rest of Jehovah's Witness, Orthodox, or "other".  Although I identify as atheist in my adult life, I grew up in the Christian church. My family has been Protestant for about 10 generations or so that I know of.

Christians oppose this bill because they don't want to be associated with "gay sinners". My question is, which Christians? The United Methodist churches that I grew up in were very tolerant of basically everyone. The Ecumenical Catholic church accepts gays. As does the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Presbyterian Church, to name a few. The Baptists stoutly refute homosexuality in any way. And the Roman Catholic Church also views it as a "moral evil" and "contrary to the laws of nature"... unless it's a Catholic Priest who is partaking of homosexual behaviors with young boy. Yes, I know, I'm citing a stereotype and not all Catholic Priests are like that. I know that. But it's happened enough that it seems highly hypocritical for a Church to take a stance against homosexuality when that many of it's ordained leaders are in trouble for it. Is that unfair? Perhaps. But I'm sure the young children who were molested or forced into child prostitution by their priests felt that their fate was unfair.

As someone who grew up in the Christian church the one thing that I find ridiculous about this law is that I know that the Bible says "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" (John 8:7) (a concept also recognized in the Jewish and Muslim faiths as well). That being the case, by what right do any of these "Christians" have to judge anyone else? Isn't the nature and frequency of a person's sins between them and God directly? We all sin, we just sin differently. Where in the Bible does it say, "love thy neighbor, unless he sins differently than you do, in which case shun and reject him". I don't recall ever seeing that.

Even more importantly, if the laws like this are going to be brought into play to protect religious freedoms, my resounding question is which religion? Which specific flavor of Christianity is being catered to with the passage of this law when Christianity as a whole is, itself, divided on the issue of whether or not being homosexual is a sin? And what makes that specific church more important than another?

I am very egalitarian in my worldview. I think everyone should be treated equally and fairly and justly as often as is possible. It's unrealistic for me to think that everything will always be equal and fair, but that is my hope and vision for the human race. I could get into all of that for hours and hours, but I digress. I personally think that this bill is a mistake, a huge step backwards in civil liberties. However, if it is the will of the people that this law be passed, so be it. But, this law must be upheld unilaterally and uniformly across the board without question. If a "Christian" pizzeria wants to refuse service to a gay person because it's against their religion (and somehow they are personally in a position where God made them responsible for passing judgement on others), then a Muslim Grocery should also be able to refuse service to a Christian because he doesn't pray to the East. A Jewish Accountant should be able to refuse service to a Christian because he doesn't wear a Kipah. An Atheist should be able to refuse service to a Christian because they believe in God in the first place. If this doesn't happen, then it's immediately clear that this bill is just a clearly veiled excuse to exercise hatred and bigotry.

No one is saying that you have to be accepting of "homos". Their sexuality is not your concern. Their sins are not your concern, that's between them and God, it's not for you to judge. What proponents of this bill fail to see is that this bill, if applied equally and justly across the board, becomes a double-edged sword that serves no purpose other than to leave everyone bleeding and once unsheathed, it's difficult to put back without causing injury to each other. I'm pretty sure that God, however you may believe in him, would not want his followers to go around deliberately hurting other human beings. As an atheist, I certainly don't want to hurt anyone, especially not deliberately. And if your God demands that you discriminate and hate and hurt others on purpose, then that just reinforces my decision that I don't want anything to do with your God.


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These blogs represent my thoughts, ideas and opinions. They may be different from yours. You may not agree with them. While I do enjoy a good, polite debate on a topic (where points are countered with other points based on logic, reason and fact), I do not enjoy an argument (where you tell me that I am wrong simply because you disagree and cannot offer any reasons to support your position). I am very respectful of others, and I expect everyone on here to be respectful in return, not only to me, but to each other as well. Disrespectful posts will be deleted automatically. Feel free to share your ideas, but keep it civil, please.