In the mad race state legislatures are running to out-crazy one another, Indiana recently pulled into the lead with its Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The bill is articulated in such a way that it clearly offers provisos to private businesses allowing them to discriminate against clientele on the basis of religious belief. Widespread condemnations of the law ensued almost immediately, including boycotts from businesses, the band Wilco and the state of Connecticut.
Really, the law just demonstrates the hysterical victimization complex of the Christian right. It’s a rather remarkable situation where this entitled crowd is scoring legislative victories because their right to discriminate is being oppressed. Try getting the same people who favor this bill to take seriously the far more substantiated claims of voter suppression and police profiling plaguing the truly disenfranchised.
The unofficial face of religious freedom legislation, and an impetus behind the Indiana law, is the small-town bakery that resisted making cakes for same-sex weddings. Apparently, having a gay customer is an act of aggression against the Christian faith, one which requires intervention from some of the nation’s highest offices. Customers who have been denied service on the basis of sexual orientation have sued those doing the discriminating, and in response lawmakers have put protections in place for the bigots.
Strikingly, there is a mirror case in which a customer sued Denver-based Azucar Bakery for refusing to make cakes with anti-gay messages. Though it’s tempting to treat the two cases similarly, there are obvious differences. No one should ever be forced to create hate speech, as was being asked of Azucar Bakery. But a cake for a gay wedding is no different from a cake for a straight wedding. In the Azucar Bakery case, the proprietor offered to compromise by creating the cake and then giving the customer the tools to write his own messages on it. Why couldn’t a bakery do the same thing for a gay marriage – make the cake and then let the couple find their own gay wax figurine to adorn it?
It all seems so trivial, and government intervention seems so needless. But there are ramifications far beyond the world of pastry. Hobby Lobby used the federal version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which is actually much weaker than the Indiana law, to deny their employees certain kinds of contraceptive coverage that would normally be required under the Affordable Care Act. Religion was also used as the basis for discrimination against black Americans in the pre-civil rights era. It’s this dark era to which Republican legislators wish us to return. Had they not been, remarkably, elected to office in Indiana, the legislators who composed the law would likely be raving incoherently on college campuses and street corners.
Another potential problem with legally protecting religious-based discrimination is that religion is such a personal matter, defined differently by just about everyone who practices it. Amazingly, this facet of the issue hasn’t gotten much attention. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before a barrage of unique cases tests the courts’ interpretation. In fact, it’s incumbent on activists to do just that.
Some clever trolls and antagonists are already finding ways to satirize Indiana’s ridiculous law using its own provisions. Satanists in Franklin County, Indiana are suing the county for rejecting their application to erect a 19-foot-tall statue of the Dark Lord on the courthouse lawn. Marijuana legalization activist Bill Levin has founded the First Church of Cannabis in Indiana.
Would a pacifist, who might call their belief religious or find a religion to claim and categorize it under, be free to stop doing business with the U.S. government? It is surely a violation of their religious principles to give money to a group that uses it to construct nuclear weapons and invade sovereign nations. In Indiana, the religious are protected from the burden of having to accept money from people they don’t like. Surely, following the same logic it makes even less sense to force Americans to give money to people they don’t like.
Even as our legal system is regressing to allow more discrimination, our culture is less accepting of it. The intense blowback to the Indiana law is ample demonstration of that. The real problem with the bill has less to do with enabling discrimination and more to do with further-empowering businesses. Citizens United first codified the notion of corporations as people; now Indiana’s law treats businesses as human beings capable of having prejudices worth protecting. If Hobby Lobby can weasel out of providing adequate healthcare on religious grounds, even a nonreligious company may decide it wants to convert so it can get away with something similar using a religious objection.
We’re returning to the oligarchic early-1900s, where business rules every fiber of our political system. The U.S. is moving backwards as a society. Religion is far too flimsy and ill-defined a concept to base any legislation on. Indiana’s law is a grotesque violation of church/state separation. Nondiscrimination laws, while griped about by bigots to this day, have had an undeniable civilizing effect on the country. Republican lawmakers struck a major victory for undoing progress in Indiana. In reaction, maybe all of America should join the Church of the No-Nukes, Lots-of-Pot, 20-Hour-Workweek.