Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Whose Freedom of Religion?

Back in 2012, the outrage and indignation of righteous people here in my home state of North Carolina propelled an item on to our election ballot for that year, a ballot to vote for an amendment to our state constitution to forbid same sex marriages from ever happening here. 

Jump ahead to 2014 and same sex marriage is allowed in North Carolina, thanks in part to that amendment. Why? Before the amendment, the idea of same sex marriage in North Carolina did not seem like a possibility. But enough right wing Tea Party nut cases got everyone riled up over the idea that we needed an amendment to keep that from happening. 

Of course the amendment was unconstitutional. How can any constitutional amendment that seeks to curtail the rights and privileges of some of its citizens ever stand up to scrutiny? So rulings were made and now same sex couples can get married in North Carolina, probably about 5 or 10 years earlier than if the proposed amendment hadn't given gays and lesbians such an easy target. 

The thing is, same sex marriage is a thing now. It's allowed in more states and so far, the republic still stands. Except the danger to our nation was never from gay people getting married; no, the true danger are those self-righteous purveyors of what they think is right.

The latest toy in their toy box is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.   

Click here for the full write up on this latest effort to curtail the rights of part of our citizenry. But here are some bits and pieces of the story. 

The Indiana state legislature passed Senate Bill 101 which the Governor signed into law. 
Gov. Mike Pence, a possible Republican presidential candidate, says that the law is meant to protect free exercise of religion. The Republican leaders of the Indiana Legislature say the law does not permit discrimination of any kind
Nineteen states have similar laws. They are modeled after a federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. It passed the House without objection and cleared the Senate by a vote of 97-3. Clinton said at the time that the law subjects the federal government to "a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone's free exercise of religion."
Pence cited the fact Barack Obama voted for the Illinois RIFRA as a state senator more than a decade ago.  (Of course, Obama, unlike Pence, also supports marriage equality and opposes anti-gay discrimination.)  But back then, RIFRAs were thought to be about benign and relatively uncontroversial matters, such as allowing Muslim jail inmates to wear closely trimmed beards or assuring that churches could feed homeless people in public parks. 
By contrast, RIFRAs like Indiana’s are being impelled by the politics of anti-gay backlash.  Their most ardent supporters come from an increasingly angry, marginalized, and shrill subset of Christian conservative activists. 
Social conservatives say that the law would stop the government from compelling people to do things they object to on religious grounds, like catering or providing flowers for a gay wedding.
But Gov. Pence sidestepped direct questions on whether the law sanctions discrimination. George Stephanopoulos of ABC News asked the Governor: "Yes or no, should it be legal to discriminate against gays and lesbians?"
Pence answered:
George, you're — you're following the mantra of the last week online, and you're trying to make this issue about something else. What I am for is protecting, with the highest standards in our courts, the religious liberty of Hoosiers. I signed the bill. We're going to continue to explain it to people that don't understand it. And in — and if possible, we will find a way to amplify what this bill really is in a legislative process. But I stand by this law.
Hardly a "yes or no" answer to the question. 

Last February, then-Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona vetoed a similar law. "I sincerely believe that Senate Bill 1062 has the potential to create more problems than it purports to solve," she said at the time. And Brewer is the exact opposite of a liberal; during her time as Arizona's Governor, Jan Brewer was a frequent and vocal critic of President Obama. 

While Gov. Pence may "stand by this law", there are a lot of critics of this act.  

The NCAA (holding their Final Four tournament in Indianapolis), Apple CEO Tim Cook and 
Angie’s List have all voiced objections with the law.

Even Miley Cyrus got in on the act. In an Instagram post using an expletive to refer to the governor, she said: "The only place that has more idiots than Instagram is in politics."

Click here for a post by Steve Sanders, a Professor of constitutional law, constitutional litigation, and family law at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. Prof. Sanders had this to say in his post on the website of the American Constitution Society (ACS): 
  One of the leading RIFRA proponents in Indiana is Advance America (not to be confused with the payday lending company).  As the message on its web site explains (emphases in original):  “SB 101 will help protect religious freedom in Indiana by providing protection for individuals with sincerely held religious beliefs, along with Christian businesses and churches.  SB 101 will help protect individuals, Christian businesses and churches from those supporting homosexual marriages and those supporting government recognition and approval of gender identity (male cross-dressers).”

This message tells you much of what you need to know about the mindset of the people who insisted that legislators give Indiana a RIFRA: the reference only to protecting “Christians”; the crude lumping together of marriage equality and cross-dressing; the implication that this issue is less about protecting true religious conscience and more about drawing a political line against “supporting homosexual marriages.”

And that is the crux of this issue. Gov. Pence and his political cronies can dress this up in the language of protecting religious freedom. But people like those with Advance America aren't really interested in religious freedom. Unless, of course, it's their religion. And that's the thing: laws like the one in Indiana are about putting into secular law the tenets of fundamentalist Christianity. Too bad if you're a Jew or a Muslim or (God forbid) an atheist. This is about consolidating power in the hands of a few small minded people who seek only to maintain their grasp on power in a world that is falling into ruin, brick by brick. Trust me, the first time a Muslim in Indiana seeks protection under their religious freedom law, all of a sudden it won't apply to them. And then guess what? The law gets challenged in court and a judge is going to rule the law is unconstitutional and the relevance of the small minded is pushed than much further into the margins. 

Which may be in the end a good thing but can America afford the damage done to get there?

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