As I write today, history is repeating itself. The bad news: Many human beings are once again demonstrating that they are both (1) capable of gross insensitivity and (2) ignorant of history. The good news is that we seem to be making progress against such retrograde behavior, if only by changing the primary targets of our hatred and our institutional biases.
A florist in Richland, Washington became a conservative celebrity last year because she refused to provide flowers for a gay wedding. Her business was selected by the gay couple because they had purchased flowers from her on at least 20 previous occasions. She already knew they were gay, but did business with them—until it came to “participating” in their marriage. She couldn’t do that, she told them, because of her “relationship with Jesus Christ.” Really? More on that later.
In Roseville, Michigan, more recently, a pediatrician refused to care for a six-day-old baby because the parents were two married women. Unfortunately, in Michigan there are no laws to protect LGBT people from such discrimination. Think about that—in Michigan and many other states, a doctor can legally refuse to provide care for an LGBT patient. Fortunately the parents in this case had other care alternatives available nearby.
Last month the state of Indiana passed a law entitled the Restoration of Freedom of Religion Act (RFRA). It was loosely based on the Federal RFRA law, which was passed in 1993 primarily to protect religious minorities from intrusions by government. Four years after that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Federal RFRA could not be applied to state government actions; since then twenty states have passed their own version of the law. Liberals tended to support this for the original reasons, to defend religious practices against government restrictions. Conservative legislators had their own reasons for voting in favor, often arguing in support of religion-based discrimination against LGBT people and trying to reinterpret the law toward that purpose.
Then, in 2012, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that that state’s RFRA applied only to government actions, and thus could not be used to defend a business against prosecution under nondiscrimination laws—in this case, a photographer who was sued for refusing to provide services at a same-sex commitment ceremony (Elane Photography v. Willock). In response, the RFRA passed in Indiana contained two new provisions specifically intended to support discrimination against minorities: (1) Allowing corporations as well as individuals to sue if they feel their religious rights are being violated; and (2) allowing “persons” (individual or corporate) to sue each other without having to connect the violation to government actions. With rules like this in place the photographer in New Mexico, the baker in Richland, and the pediatrician in Roseville would have had legal support to defend their actions.
In the past two weeks a national outcry forced Indiana to modify their RFRA and led Arkansas to avoid passing a similar law. As a society we have made progress, but there are still influential holdouts. On television this past Sunday (April 5th) former presidential candidate and evangelical pundit Mike Huckabee was interviewed on CNN and trotted out many of the conservative talking points regarding the RFRA law. The main argument? “I’ve never seen anything so utterly off the mark in my life as trying to pretend that the RFRA law is actually discrimination.” Yes, conservatives who supported the Indiana law actually claimed it was not discriminatory. This is semantic dissembling. Of course the new RFRA version is not itself discrimination, and, as others have pointed out, it doesn’t mention gay people or any other group that might be the victims of discrimination. It merely legitimizes discrimination based on religious doctrine, and was intended to do so.
Using the original Indiana RFRA as passed, business owners would have a legal defense if they wished to refuse service to anyone—gay, black, asian, Jewish, Catholic, etc.—based solely on that personal characteristic and the owner’s interpretation of religious doctrines. This is not an imaginary threat. There are still people who believe that the scriptures command them to keep the races separate. There are also those who believe that their religion is the only “true” religion and that they should avoid contact with nonbelievers—unless they are trying to convert them. Giving such people a legal escape clause will recreate the types of restricted social venues that were common in the United States only fifty years ago—similar to “whites-only” restaurants, and neighborhoods that excluded Jews.
But according to proponents of the RFRA, this couldn’t happen. As Huckabee noted, “Discrimination is when someone comes into the pizza place, they’re turned away because they’re black or because they’re female or because they’re gay, although I don’t honestly know how you would know someone is gay just because they walked in and ordered a pepperoni pizza.” In a city this may be mostly true. But in small towns like Richland, people know more about their customers. The owner of the offending florist shop didn’t have to ask about the two men asking for her services; she already knew they were gay. And small towns are also the places in which alternative choices are less likely to be available. To refer to a different case of religion-based service refusal, if the only drug store in your town refuses to fill your prescription because the pharmacist believes the medicine offends church rules, the problem for you could be anything from a serious inconvenience to a life-threatening event. A society can’t allow such decisions to be controlled by individual “persons”, whether they are human or corporate.
The Federal RFRA essentially said that individuals had the right to live their own lives according to the dictates of their religion, without government interference. However, people do not have the right to use their religion to control the lives of other individuals who do not share their beliefs. It is good that Indiana was forced to change its law to be less objectionable—they added limited LGBT protections—although they should simply have removed the two expanded provisions that it contained.
Unfortunately, the social forces that encouraged Indiana legislators to add these two provisions are still working to find ways to make discrimination legal. There are well-funded movements who want to impose their own biases against LGBT people, who want to force everyone to listen to, and even to recite, their own sectarian prayers at public events, who want to prosecute women and doctors who don’t agree with their extreme views on abortion, who want government to create preferential sanctions and monuments in favor of one religion. Such unconstitutional efforts must not be successful.
Finally, a note about Jesus. If you are a believer, you should reread what Jesus actually said, repeatedly, about how you should treat people who are different from you. Perhaps you should be much less concerned about what the Old Testament—the pre-Jesus archive—says about behavior and beliefs. You will find that Jesus was a radical dedicated to changing the old restrictive rules and prejudicial attitudes that were common in his day, many of which are documented in the Old Testament. Christianity and Christians should be practicing acceptance and understanding, not punishment or rejection or segregation. If you have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” you should behave accordingly.