Saturday, March 28, 2015

Regarding Indiana and Religious Freedom (UPDATED)

This has been on my mind a lot, ever since the story first broke about a gay couple attempting to get a wedding cake and they were denied service.  Actually, it goes back farther than that.  This is an issue that has complicated my poor brain ever since, on one of my very first dates, I saw the sign in a local diner that said, "Management reserves the right to refuse service."  High school Leonard thought, That's probably for unruly patrons and/or drunk people they have to kick out.  But High School Leonard kept thinking (dangerous), What about people they don't like?  What about high school students like us?  Could they just refuse service and kick us out?  Do we go to jail?  Who will call my mom to bail me out?  But I digress...

Regarding the gay couple and their wedding cake, even my Unit said, "Why would a gay couple want to take their business to people who discriminate?"

My answer was that the couple probably didn't know about the business's beliefs.  Perhaps the business was recommended to them by a (presumably straight) friend?  They were, after all, just looking for a good cake, not trying to "make a statement" or confront bigots1.

And then I thought What would I do in that situation?  After being confronted with such discrimination, I certainly wouldn't want to give that business any of my hard-earned money.  But I also wouldn't let it slide either.  A patented Leonard Strongly Worded Letter would probably come into play, but then what?

We all can basically agree that such discrimination is wrong, but what about the reverse?  There is also the story of a woman at a bakery who refused to write a customer's hate-filled message on a cake.  Again, what would you or I do if asked to write something horrible, say something about Nazis and racists and babies, on an item?  As good human beings, we would refuse, wouldn't we?

So how can we make sure that situation A doesn't occur, but that the person refusing in situation B isn't punished under the same laws?  How can we keep religion OUT of businesses, but keep ethics IN?  I don't have the answers to these questions, despite the fact that they keep going around in my head.

It should be noted, though, that while we are outraged at Indiana's seemingly backwards step in lawmaking, they are only the latest but certainly not the only state with a religious freedom bill.  In fact, they are only one of twenty states with similar laws with similar wording.  According to The Washington Post, the following states have "Religious Freedom Restoration Acts":
  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • New Mexico
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Virginia
All the states' acts seem to "share language" with a federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) signed by President Clinton way back in 1993 (Schwarz).  That act (and Indiana's) say "governments should not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification" (U.S. Code 42, Chapter 21B, 2000bb).  Even Leonard is having a hard time breaking down that language.  I guess I'm not understanding what they mean by "burden."
Update:  This is the best explanation I've seen so far:  "The measure, which takes effect in July, prohibits state laws that “substantially burden” a person’s ability to follow his or her religious beliefs. The definition of “person” includes religious institutions, businesses and associations" (LGBTQ Nation Staff Reports).  That does help to clarify things just a bit.  The way the 1993 act is written reads as if the government is forcing "religious exercise" on people; rather somehow not allowing people to exercise their religion.

Please note that the quoted is piece is only one of FIVE findings of this piece of federal legislature.  Point 5 states that "the compelling interest test as set forth in prior Federal court rulings is a workable test for striking sensible balances between religious liberty and competing prior governmental interests(U.S. Code 42, Chapter 21B, 2000bb).

Also the Washington Post piece, when speaking of the Act cited above, does not mention that

  • it was deemed unconstitutional when applied to states in 1997
  • it is still applied to federal government
  • some states (as mentioned above) continued to use this language when passing their own local laws, despite the federal act being ruled as unconstitutional on the state level
More on the history of this complicated act, its passage, etc. can be found on the always helpful Wikipedia.

So your point, Leonard?
I guess my point is that it's complicated.  The act is complicated, as is its wording.  While perhaps started with the best of intentions (perhaps for things like Situation B), the law appears to be used for other purposes (and we all know where good intentions lead).  And why aren't we protesting the other nineteen states (including my own) who have similar laws?  How are those laws being enacted and enforced?  As I said before, I don't have the answers to any of these, only more questions.

1 Needs verification.

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