In the last few years, we’ve seen a flurry of new bills coming out of state houses addressing religious liberty. They reveal an earnest desire to protect religious freedom. In practice, however, they serve to disenfranchise and actually restrict the religious liberty of vast numbers of people.
These bills, popping up in at least 20 states, including Indiana and my home state of Michigan, are based on a federal bill from 1993 called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The original RFRA was passed to not only protect, but restore the religious liberty of Native Americans whose religious practices, primarily, it seems, being about worship and the use of peyote, were criminalized.
The reincarnation at the state level of such a movement is a whole other monster, with opposite intentions. Rather than being concerned with worship and eliminating the criminalization of actual historic practices of religious people, the new bills seem to be aimed at protecting (as opposed to restoring) incredibly broad understandings of religious actions outside of worship and tradition.
And lest we think this is about allowing for broad understanding of what constitutes religious belief, the language of bills, such as Indiana’s Senate Bill 568: Religious Freedom Restoration Act, use words like “sincere” to restrict religious freedom to “real” traditions (like Christianity) versus “fake” ones (like the Flying Spaghetti Monster) and, I would argue, any attempt by atheists to seek similar protection.
Bills like Senate Bill 568 aren’t actually interested in restoring religious freedom. They are more concerned with protecting the discriminatory actions of religious people and organizations. We know this because this bill, like others, was written in response to a Colorado baker going back on a contract to bake a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding and a similar case in Washington with a florist. But the language itself paints a broad picture with few other applications than to circumvent laws that are generally geared at protecting other people.
From the Indiana bill:
5 Sec. 3. (a) As used in this chapter, “exercise of religion” means
6 the practice or observance of religion.
7 (b) The term includes a person’s ability to:
8 (1) act; or
9 (2) refuse to act;
10 in a manner that is substantially motivated by the person’s
11 sincerely held religious belief, regardless of whether the religious
12 belief is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.
What I first notice is how broad the description of “exercise of religion” is here: a practice or observance, in action or inaction, motivated by belief. It does not have to be central to the system of belief: it can be the obscure teaching from the fringes. The vagueness of this description is telling. They haven’t written about core beliefs of religious traditions, but the sincerity of the person’s belief. This seems to be the central thesis here.
To put it into other words, a central belief of my religious tradition is to wage reconciliation with the world through non-violence and protecting the weak. A member of my tradition may be a violent SOB who beats his wife. If he proclaims complementarianism as his “sincerely held religious belief” despite a very different teaching he receives from his tradition, it seems as if the law will protect him based on the vague criteria in the case. I doubt that the court would currently be interested in hearing how her religious freedom is being curtailed by his abuse.
While at the same time, if my church were to act in such a way as to prevent an act of violence on an individual, say, the execution of a death row inmate in the prison nearby, would they protect our “act” based in “sincerely held religious belief” that the state should not execute people, as the state executed our Lord? Or perhaps our action as individuals is to withhold our state taxes because of the “sincerely held religious belief” that, even though our taxes contribute to many good things, our taxes are also used to execute people. Would these actions and inactions hold up in court? I am certain they would not.
The cruel irony of these bills is that refusing to sell flowers to a person is so ridiculously tangential to the gospel that it is criminally indefensible, particularly on religious grounds, running counter to scripture. And yet the language of the bill invites this very reading!
At the same time, issues of war and violence, restoring creation, and worshipping GOD in ways fitting our tradition are so central to our faith, that they are constants in Scripture. And yet these are the particular areas these bills are unlikely to touch. Even though the bill is so vaguely written that it should protect these “sincerely held religious beliefs”, it is abundantly clear that the bill does not intend to defend these actions. These will be judged as having compelling state interest. But discrimination of LGBTQ? Low priority, probably.
In reality, the only way the state is going to sanction laissez-faire religion is if we as the faithful, act like the Temple authorities in Jerusalem, policing ourselves, as long as we don’t rock Rome’s boat. And yet this is the gospel. It isn’t discrimination, it isn’t only proclaiming the risen Christ. It is feeding Christ’s sheep. It is restoring all of creation and serving GOD by loving our neighbors.
This means, then that a minority of the faithful will have a sanctioned right to discriminate or otherwise act above the law; but these laws are unlikely to protect the religious beliefs of the majority of people, who not only practice religion differently, but whose religious tradition has the opposite motivation. This bill seeks to protect the flower shop owner from selling flowers to a gay couple. But what of the gay couple’s religious beliefs? Particularly the belief that GOD wants them to be together forever and that a religious community will gather to celebrate the bond they already have between each other and with GOD.
This is the face of religious persecution in our country. It isn’t the conservative boogeymen found in “those Godless atheists” or Middle Eastern Muslims who are out to defeat good God-fearing Christians. The face of religious persecution is a minority of the Christian community in the United States (conservative evangelicals) claiming authority over our faith and wielding it like a weapon against their brothers and sisters (and cousins) in faith. A group so unwilling to love, so unwilling to practice the Great Commandment, that they get the state to let them get away with breaking it.
They call it religious freedom. I call it bullying. And we’ve been called to work with GOD in reshaping this world of ours. A world made for celebration and reconciliation. A world in which we give thanks every time two people find more together than they do apart. A whole community rallying around them and lifting them up, protecting them and giving them hope for an amazing future. A world I am deeply thankful I have the opportunity to build, collaborating with you, regardless of your personal sincerely held beliefs.