Thursday, April 2, 2015

Religious Freedom Acts: What Do They Actually Mean for Religious Freedom and Freedom in General?

The state of Indiana has been taking a lot of heat lately. The states of Connecticut and New York, as well as a whole slew of companies and celebrities, have decided to boycott the state of Indiana. What did Indiana do that was so heinous? Indiana's government passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Wait a minute! How can religious freedom be a bad thing? Amongst other things, this country was based on the pursuit of religious freedom. This, of course, assumes that the bill Indiana passed actually has to do with religious freedom. Before we go into the "which side is correct" argument, let's take a look at the history of "religious freedom acts" first.

We can go back to the Constitution and the First Amendment, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Since Congress is constitutionally the law-making branch, this de jure applies to the federal government. The creation of the Fourteenth Amendment applied the concept to the state and local levels. In a more modern context, the federal government created the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The Act passed with very little opposition, and was signed by President Clinton on November 16, 1993. The purpose of passing the Act was to apply strict scrutiny to the First Amendment's Free Exercise clause, a precedent that was already set by Sherbert v. Verner and Wisconsin v. Yoder. The Supreme Court later ruled in 1997 (City of Boerne v. Flores) that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that if it were to apply on the state level, each state would need to apply their own version of a "religious freedom act."

Fast-forward to March 26, 2015 when Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed the Indiana version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It shouldn't seem like that big of a deal. Indiana is now one of twenty states to pass such an act. Even Connecticut, one of the states boycotting Indiana, has such an act (although they're not 100 percent the same type of legislation). However, those who are opposed to Indiana's new law are doing so because they're postulating that the law differs from other religious freedom acts to the point where it's a detrimental piece of anti-gay legislation.

Let's back up for a second and define religious freedom. To sum up what I wrote on religious freedom a couple years ago, "your freedom of religion ends where another person's freedom of religion begins." For instance, I have the right to keep kosher (Jewish dietary laws), but if I tried to force those views on everyone else, I would violate another's freedom to religion. In the case of the fundamentalist, Christian baker who believes homosexuality is a sin, he has a right to not sell a cake to a lesbian couple. However, that does not mean that his religious beliefs can be the basis to violate the lesbian's couple to get married. It would be the same if a homosexual baker refused to sell a cake to a fundamentalist Christian couple about to get married because that baker hated religious fundamentalists. It is about the freedom of association and property rights. No one should force you to sell something you don't want to. Conversely, no one should force you to buy something from anti-gay religious fundamentalists, which is why boycotting is a perfectly acceptable response.

If you don't like a certain baker, I'm sure you can find another baker. Most people realize that the money of anybody, whether gay, straight, white, black, female, Christian, Jewish (you get the idea) is as green as yours or mine. Funny how that works out! And what's better is that society is becoming more accepting of gay people and same-sex weddings because it means that anti-gay discrimination is bad for business.

Getting back on track, this is why it shouldn't surprise any of us that I have an issue with anti-discrimination laws, mostly because of the superfluousness attributed to the fact that most businesses already have such provisions in their policies. Speaking of anti-discrimination laws, Indiana is one of the states that doesn't have anti-discrimination laws, which means that even if Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act were repealed this very second, business owners could still deny goods and services based on sexual orientation. All the RFRA does is provide a defense in certain discrimination cases. Considering that the RFRA only applies in judicial proceedings in which the government is not a party, the hoopla about the RFRA's "anti-gay discrimination" is overstated. The same hyperbole goes for Christians who think they're systematically being victims of religious tolerance. This is all the more so since no one has ever won a religious exemption under RFRA standards. Using the law to coerce unwilling participants to baking a cake [or providing any other services] for a same-sex wedding is not going to endear anybody, especially Republicans who are slowly, but surely, trending towards being more accepting of same-sex marriage over time.

To quote Reason Magazine's Nick Gillespie, "It's wrong for liberals to use the government to force everyone everywhere to act the way that they want. And it's tendentious for conservatives to insist that Indiana's RFRA law, passed to forestall religiously minded businesses from having to contravene their beliefs, wasn't really about discrimination." Election season is coming up, so it's no surprise that politically charged rhetoric surrounding hot-button topics is taking place. I do have to wonder whether such rhetoric will inadvertently erode freedom either because of some crusade towards political correctness or a more "puritanical" society in which religious conservatives could force their problematic view of "marriage should be between one man and one woman" onto society.

Setting politics aside for a second, moments like these truly test the bounds of freedom in what we call a free society. Religious people should be allowed to observe their religion as long as it doesn't violate anyone else's freedoms. They also have the right to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex couple, even though that seems un-Christian, considering that Jesus engaged with prostitutes and tax collectors, two examples of particularly sinful people at the time. Much like religious Christians have certain rights, gay people should have a right to enter same-sex marriage contracts and be afforded life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, just like every other American has. Religious freedom and civil liberties are not mutually exclusive concepts. The debate should be about how we can be tolerant and respectful towards others while preserving everyone's freedoms. Anything else is at best a distraction from more important issues, and at worst, is a disservice to the American people.

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