Both conservatives and liberals aren’t being straight about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act
Everybody's Lost Their Goddamn Mind Over Religious Freedom
You want to know the weirdest thing about the fight over Indiana’s state-level version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)? It’s totally at odds with the origins of that first federal law.Read the whole thing for embedded links and more. I think the ideas presented in this article make a lot of sense, but I doubt many supporters on either side of the conflict will embrace them. And the history of this law... so much irony!
Indiana’s law is being championed by religious conservatives and opposed by secular liberals. In an intense press conference on Tuesday, embattled Republican Governor Mike Pence declared, “I believe religious liberty is our first freedom.” But the original RFRA was signed into law by Democrat Bill Clinton in 1993 after the state of Oregon refused to pay unemployment insurance to a couple of Native Americans who got canned as drug-rehab counselors for using peyote in religious ceremonies. RFRA was passed to remedy such an obvious injustice and its main sponsor in the House was liberal congressman Charles Schumer, who’s expected to become the next Senate Minority Leader and is most famous for trying to ban every goddamned good-time substance known to mankind, from Four Loko to powdered caffeine to “delicious-looking detergent.”
Weirder still: Arch-conservative Jesse Helms, a hardcore Christian who was an unapologetic homophobe, was one of just three senators who voted against the law. Writing for the majority in Employment Division v. Smith, the drug warrior Antonin Scalia thundered that letting religion provide a loophole in such an instance “would open the prospect of constitutionally required exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind.”
From a libertarian perspective, there’s an easy enough way to resolve the current conflict between demands for religious freedom and equality. It doesn’t fully satisfy either side but it has the virtue of preserving a pluralistic society and minimizing intervention into everyday life.
The starting point should be to focus on discrimination by the government, which was the impetus behind the original federal RFRA—Oregon refused to pay out unemployment based on religiously based drug use. Conservatives typically say they believe in limited government and individual rights and that the government shouldn’t play favorites or accord certain people or classes of people special treatment (this is their argument against affirmative action). If they mean what they say in other contexts, conservatives should be in the forefront of pushing for marriage equality, as the state has no case for treating individuals differently under the law.
For their part, liberals should recognize the limits to and wisdom of injecting state power into every possible relationship in the country. As wrong and stupid as I think it is for a particular individual or business to discriminate against a customer or neighbor based on sexual orientation (or race, gender, and class for that matter), that should be the business’s decision, especially if the business is only one service provider among many.
Nobody should be forced to do something they don’t want to do, whether it’s bake cakes for gay weddings or decorate cakes with anti-gay slurs. To me, whether a person’s or a business’s decision is based in religion is immaterial.
Whatever you may think of Jack Phillips’s refusal to bake a wedding cake for gay customers, there’s something as or more disturbing about the court ruling against the owner of Lakewood, Colorado’s Masterpiece Cakeshop. Not only was the baker forced to change his store policy, he and his staff were required to attend sensitivity training. That sounds like something out of China during the Cultural Revolution. It doesn’t help that Phillips offered to make the original complainants any sort of item but a wedding cake.
Most Americans don’t agree with Phillips’s beliefs in this case, but such disagreements are one of the prices we pay for living in a free society, in which we seriously recognize and respect that different people have different value systems. It’s worth noting that in the segregated South, very different rules applied. It was common, for instance, that local and state governments and laws actively prevented businesses from treating customers equally. When laws were not openly racist, “citizen’s councils” and terror groups such as the Ku Klux Klan enforced a de facto standard against businesses that treated all customers equally. This is not the case today with regards to gays and lesbians.
By the same token, any individuals or businesses that exclude certain sorts of business can’t exactly bitch and moan when people decide to publicize such policies and organize boycotts, as is happening to the entire state of Indiana now.
Supporters of state-level RFRAs should own the fact that, as Apple’s Cook says, such laws absolutely do allow discrimination (more precisely, they allow defendants to use religious beliefs as a defense in certain court proceedings). Indiana Governor Mike Pence now says he hopes to fix the law with more legislation. “The issue here is still is tolerance a two-way street,” he told ABC News over the weekend. Of course it is, and the same right that allows a business to opt out of serving some customers also allows others to respond by taking their business elsewhere. Last year, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a RFRA-style bill precisely because of possible economic fallout. [...]