I occasionally choose to air my political views on this blog, and almost always regret it. I have strongly held views on lots of topics, including income inequality, a woman’s right to choose and money in politics. I make no effort to hide that I am philosophically liberal and operationally pragmatic. I like a government that works and fondly hope the current insanity that grips the United State, the nation of my birth and the land I love, is simply some sort of bizarre cycle that can end before before we hurtle off some financial, environmental or social cliff.
I am not religious. I am not an atheist. I have no problem with those who are religious. I don’t view religion as an evil. Everyone seeks the truth in their own way, whether through the community and comfort of the church, synagogue or mosque, through scientific explanation, santeria, smoking peyote or any other practice that opens the pathway to truth. As long as it doesn’t trample the rights of others. I have as little patience with Richard Dawkins as I do with Franklin Graham.
The main point of this ramble is to vent on RFRA, specifically the version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed last week by Indiana and signed by Mike Pence. The act was echoed last night by the Arkansas legislature, and it heads to the desk of Governor Asa Hutchinson (R) for signature. It allows business owners to deny service to those deemed in conflict with their religious beliefs.
The authors of these bills and the governors who make them law call these “religious freedom” laws. They aren’t. They are civil rights poison pills. 37 states have legalized gay marriage, through popular initiative, legislative action or mandated by the courts, as Indiana was in October 2014. For states like Indiana, with a conservative legislature and governor, RFRA offers an opportunity to react to judicially-mandated same-sex marriage. The inspiration was the Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby decision last summer. It upheld the company’s right not to pay for contraceptives as an infringement on the company’s religious objections to contraception. More broadly the decision prevents government mandates that run counter to a business’ religious values. The effect of the Indiana and Arkansas laws would be to allow business owners to refuse service to those whose lifestyle conflicts with their own religious beliefs, including the LGBT community, recently granted marriage rights under the law.
Those who defend the law claim a first amendment protection. The constitution clearly states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
There is lots the amendment doesn’t say-no church and state arguments, no discussion of a Christian nation, just a few words with two important clauses: the establishment clause, that prevents the country from adopting a national religion, and the free exercise clause which is the crux of this argument. Pence and his supporters suggest the RFRA is necessary to protect the religious rights of Christian businessmen who may cannot morally condone the “gay lifestyle” and offers them protection with this law. Protection from? Lawsuits, of course. If an LGBT couple wants flowers, photography services, or catering and are refused, they could file a lawsuit.
A lawsuit on what basis? A civil rights suit, of course. Though gay couples are not currently a protected class in Indiana, it seems only a matter of time until they are. But fundamentally this is one of those cases where the rights of some come into conflict with the rights of others. The 14th Amendment is the bedrock of our civil rights tradition. It establishes that states cannot deny rights to citizens, and that all Americans are entitled to equal protection under the law. It is the basis for the Civil Rights movement, women’s rights, the treatment of prisoners, and protections to the disabled. How can Indiana pass a law reserving the right to refuse service to certain Americans if they have the same rights as anyone else?
A firestorm erupted when the signing of this measure was passed. Large businesses who operate in Indiana, such as Wal-Mart (not usually one of my favorites,) spoke out against RFRA. Angie’s List, headquartered in Indianapolis put expansion plans on hold. Apple CEO Tim Cooks spoke out against this discrimination in a Washington Post editorial yesterday. The NCAA, with its headquarters in Indianapolis, and the NCAA basketball championships scheduled for Monday in the state has begun reviewing its positions. States, such as my own, Washington have issued bans on travel for state employees.
The response from Governor Pence was astonishingly hypocritical regarding the negative response to the law. Pence vomited words all over himself when repeatedly asked by George Stephanopoulos to state RFRA was not a law aimed at discriminating against the LGBT community. He could not. And he further refused to add the gay rights community to their list of protected groups. Pence is potentially a second-tier presidential candidate. This is a no-lose proposition for him. It helps him with uber-conservative primary voters. If he has to backtrack and add non-discriminatory language to the bill, he’s a martyr for the cause. Pence can claim he did his best but had to do this to mollify businesses in his state, while blaming negative reaction on the “intolerant” and the press as he did on This Week.
I find this all disturbing, chiefly because I believe in civil rights for all, but there is more to it. Increasingly Americans seem to be searching for their bubbles, their protective enclaves in which they don’t have to have contact with, interact with, negotiate and compromise with others who do not think or believe exactly as they do. This is troubling in the most diverse country in the world, and becomes more diverse each day, one which continues to be shaped by immigration and a culture engaged in a generational change, evolving socially and technologically. Yet I am astonished that though we are so diverse, that we are so similar. 99.9% of Americans want the same thing. They want to be free from violence. They want opportunity for economic success. They want stuff. They want a safe and better future for their kids.
What is troubling is not that Americans disagree on how to get there, that’s been the norm in American political history. I am troubled by this requirement on the right and the left, but more for conservatives, that there is some orthodoxy that must be observed. No taxes, no climate change, protect a religion that 80% of Americans observe and freely participate in. What’s more, if my way is different than your way, I must be a bad person-a liar, a socialist, a muslim anti-colonialist, a traitor, not a real American, the other. And in order to get along, live in the same neighborhood, serve on the same PTA, go to the same church we must check off all the same boxes. Not the one with the rainbow, definitely not that one.
Gay Americans will never be able to check all the boxes on the conservative list. They will always be the other. The Indiana and Arkansas laws prove it. The question is whether Americans will let them get away with it.