Tuesday, March 31, 2015

What's up with RFRA?

I am truly fascinated at the firestorm over the Religious Freedom Renewal Act. I'm sure Governor Pence had no idea. So many thoughts and questions.

My main question is why it has gone up in flames in Indiana and not in any of the other places where similar laws have passed. This morning I woke up with a hypothesis.

1. I don't think it's so much what the law itself says or actually does. The law presents itself as a law that is "for" religious people. Take Indiana Wesleyan University. Part of our purpose is to form students in a certain Christian way, so it is important to us that faculty broadly embrace the religious values of the university as a matter of their free will.

So we would not hire an atheist to teach here. We do not hate atheists. We have students who are atheists. Our cafeteria feeds atheists, and atheists do not automatically receive parking tickets on campus. We respect atheists as people. It just would contradict our purposes to have them teach courses about God.

So this act purports to protect these religious freedoms. They are not meant to be against people but to allow people with certain convictions to be different. It's about the freedom of religion. If a certain synagogue believes that their building would become unclean if an uncircumcised man enters, then I am okay with them prohibiting uncircumcised men from entering.

2. But I think the reason why this particular law has caused such a furor is the context, the perceived reasons for the law. So, it would be different if there were some religious person who was being oppressed and this law was a response. Instead, this law comes in the context of a state that is on a certain trajectory in relation to issues of same-sex marriage. It's proponents have set up the context of the law in relation to the issue of same-sex marriage.

And there is the reason for the firestorm, I suspect. The law has come in a context that makes it seem against a group of people rather than for a group of people. Perception is reality. I can see clearly that no amount of explanation is going to change the perception on this one. You can re-read the law out loud and explain it till you're blue in the face. The damage seems to be done.

Once again, Pence is left looking like a deer in the headlights.

3. As a sideline, these laws do not usually result in any discrimination of the sort we are hearing about, from what I hear. In case of conflict, anti-discrimination laws generally trump. That's probably Indiana's best bet, to pass a strong anti-discrimination law as a clarification.

As for Christians, the New Testament has done away with the category of clean and unclean, at least in the public sphere. We are strangers and aliens in that land anyway. We need to stop thinking of America as sacred space we need to keep from being defiled.

Every time we waste our energies trying to make broader America behave by our rules, the less we will have any capital left to spend when our churches and institutions actually do need defending.


vanilla said...

Perception is reality and timing is everything.

Either it is a firestorm that is totally unnecessary, or could have been, or it is a fire that was going to be ignited anyway.

Your concern for our expenditure of capital in the wrong battle is spot-on.

JRS said...

By your own analysis this law is not about making "broader America behave by our rules." This law simply restates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

If this First Freedom is not an issue to stand up and defend, what rises to that level?

Martin LaBar said...

I agree with vanilla.

Anonymous said...

The Indiana RFRA is different from other states and federal law in two significant ways that I think account for all the uproar. First, it says "religious belief" and not "deeply held belief" which makes it much harder for courts to parse out whether someone's religious liberty is substantially burdened. Second, it specifies that the law is not limited to cases where the government itself is a party and it can apply to for-profit entities. So whereas the 1st amendment (CONGRESS shall make no law) and other RFRAs protect businesses or individuals from government encroachment, the Indiana law protects people and business from each other. IWU is different since it is a religious institution, and RFRA seems to be expanding some of the same rights IWU has to for-profit businesses. I don't think it will actually be as disastrous as people fear, but the law itself is different here than in other places. It will be up to the courts to decide whose interests are violated when a restaurant or store won't hire or serve a gay person/couple, and I don't envy the justices who have to decide a case based on this legislation.

Mike Cline said...

If RJS is right, isn't this whole thing a waste of time and dollars? Why do we need to restate what the constitution says? It's more than that.

JRS said...

I agree Mike Cline. Unfortunately the First Amendment has not been respected. Consequently the US Congress passed and President Clinton signed a similar federal law. So have 19 other states.