It’s been hard to ignore the firestorm that’s erupted since Indiana unveiled its Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Since Governor Mike Pence signed it into law last week, the national news and social media have been consumed with debating this law.
Critics of the law raised concerns the legislation will give license and rise to discrimination – in other words, not serving homosexuals simply because of their orientation. For example, some are suggesting the act will allow restaurant owners to refuse service to homosexuals because they are gay. However, supporters of the legislation – like those of us here at Focus on the Family – believe the act will do no such thing. Indeed, we would not support RFRAs if we believed that would happen.
Here’s the truth:
RFRA is not a “license to discriminate,” as its critics allege. It only comes into play when Christians (or persons of any faith) are taken to court and have to defend themselves for violating a government law or edict that defies their conscience. There is no guarantee that the people of faith will win. In fact, in most cases the government does. But at least it gives people of faith the ability to have a defense that forces the government to have a compelling reason if it will infringe on someone’s religious practice. It also requires government to infringe in the least intrusive way possible.
That’s good news for any American of any faith.
That’s why RFRA laws have been on the books for more than 20 years now. It was 1993 when President Bill Clinton signed the federal RFRA into law. Indiana’s law, as well laws in 19 other states, are patterned after this federal law. Eleven other states have protections like the ones in RFRA.
And in 20 years, none of the fears currently being vocalized about mean-spirited Christians being allowed to turn away homosexual individuals have materialized. None. The New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote favorably on Indiana’s RFRA:
“As a matter of principle, it is simply the case that religious liberty is a value deserving our deepest respect, even in cases where it leads to disagreements as fundamental as the definition of marriage.”
Yet, every few days now, we come across another story of Christians in the U.S. being punished for exercising their religious liberties. I’ve blogged about some of these principled individuals who are risking their businesses and livelihoods in order to live out their strong religious convictions:
– The owners of two companies, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialists, refused to provide possible abortifacients as part of health care plans required by Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) because of their owners’ deeply held Christian belief that life starts at fertilization. Last year, aided by the federal-level RFRA, the Supreme Court recognized the owners’ right to not violate their conscience.
– The business of Donald and Evelyn Knapp, The Hitching Post Wedding Chapel, was threatened with fines of $1,000 a day. Why? Because the Knapps, both in their late 60s and both ordained ministers with the Foursquare Church, take the tenets of their faith and denomination seriously and don’t perform same-sex ceremonies. Their objection wasn’t against homosexuals; it was against having to participate in a ceremony that goes against their faith beliefs.
– A young couple out of New Mexico, Elaine and Jon Huguenin, co-owners of Elane Photography, politely turned down a request by a homosexual couple to photograph their same-sex commitment ceremony. They were taken to court. The New Mexico Supreme Court told Elaine that she, as “the price of citizenship,” must use her creative talents to communicate a message with which she disagrees or suffer punishment. Again in this instance, the Huguenins did not discriminate against homosexuals – they had served many before through photography jobs. They just couldn’t, in good conscience, participate in a commitment ceremony.
– Most recently, I’ve shared with you how a 70-year-old grandma and florist in Washington state, Barronelle Stutzman, might lose her home and life’s savings because she declined participating in the same-sex wedding ceremony of her long-term client, whom she had gladly served for many years.
Not all Christians have a conviction that participating in a same-sex wedding goes against their faith. But for those who do, RFRAs matter.
I want to highlight a very important point made by Andrew Walker with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission:
“A wedding vendor who chooses not to service a same-sex wedding is not discriminating against a person’s being. Instead, the vendor believes that material cooperation in a particular event encroaches on his conscience.”
That’s the difference between true discrimination and a principled person refusing service because of their sincere faith belief. And even then, a court will decide if that refusal was legitimate.
And that’s why RFRA laws don’t just help Christians. They help provide a defense to people of all faiths. Jews, Muslims, the Amish, Native Americans – all of these religious groups can benefit from RFRA laws.
Political and cultural commentator Mollie Hemmingway has put together an eye-opening article I recommend you read. “Meet 10 Americans Helped by Religious Freedom Bills Like Indiana’s” helps make the point that laws like the one recently enacted in Indiana are inclusive. They don’t single out a particular religion and give it special liberties. Rather, they protect all people of faith. (The Washington Times also has a good article explaining the inclusive nature of RFRA laws.)
When you read Mollie’s piece, you’ll learn about a Lipan Apache religious leader who avoided a 15-year sentence at a federal penitentiary for using eagle feathers thanks to the federal RFRA. You’ll meet a woman of the Sikh faith who was allowed to carry a religiously required emblem into her workplace with the IRS. You’ll even meet a Jewish prisoner in Florida who was able to eat kosher meals thanks to that state’s RFRA.
I would hope that Americans of all backgrounds – liberal and conservative, atheist or religious, homosexual or heterosexual – can come together on a small patch of common ground that recognizes that religious freedom is a foundational principle of our great nation. The people behind the headlines mentioned in this post matter, and their faith matters. How can we remain “the land of the free” if we’re no longer able to operate in accord with our most deeply held convictions?
I’m interested in hearing from you: What do you think about Indiana’s law?