Neither Religion Nor Freedom: Why the RFRA is Dangerous

It was less than twenty-four hours after attending an inspirational multi-faith meeting of local Ohio leaders about coordinating a response to the upcoming Supreme Court of the United States decision when I heard the news of Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana signing into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. My optimism felt momentarily shattered; my Facebook feed filled with posts by friends who were angry, confused, outraged, despondent, and a whole host of other emotions. I quipped that the Act is filled with Orwellian doublespeak, as religious freedom has neither been lost nor restored. But sarcasm will only salve the savaged soul for so long.

Governor Pence continues to insist that the legislation is not discriminatory, but it is clearly aimed at LGBTQ persons. No reasonable person can deny this; however, Indiana has now embarked upon a very slippery slope. The language is vague; it is unclear what constitutes a “religious act or belief” or what an “undue burden” might be, the threshold for acting or refusing to act in accordance to one’s faith. While some people might have no issues will allowing citizens to deny services to members of the GLBT community, a Pandora’s Box awaits. Think about this: A person could deny service to a man who has shaved (Leviticus 19:27); a man could claim the right to ask a woman if she is menstruating lest he be rendered unclean by touching her or sitting where she sits (Leviticus 15:19-30); or demand that a person who has been shot but is tattooed be denied medical attention because he is an abomination (Leviticus 19:28). It does not matter that these requirements will have been ripped from their original context; there is no mandate that a person be a religion scholar and be able to defend his or her belief. All the person need do is say, “It is part of my religion” and is therefore free to make decisions that can literally have a life or death impact on another person.

After years of activism, which sometimes includes pushback even within congregations that I pastor or belong, I understand that some have decided that homosexuality is a sin and their opinions will not change. In my Facebook feed, I have friends who post about how marriage equality is leading to the normalization of pedophilia; I wholeheartedly disagree, and find the position offensive, but I remain friends with them. I sincerely believe that once we are in the Body of Christ together, we are commanded by God to continue to come to the table together in love and compassion, even when our disagreements are passionate. I find it odd that some want to invoke Christ to deny services and basic compassion to fellow human beings, but I also don’t want to descend into calling someone unChristian. We simply regard the Scriptures differently.

I write today to illustrate how dangerous a precedent has been set.There have been legislative efforts prohibiting the implementation of Sharia Law (an asinine undertaking in the opinion of this author), yet what we see in Indiana is a lived example of religious extremism masking as “freedom.” An individual now seemingly has the right to invoke religion within the public sphere to justify just about anything. And as most of us are not lawyers or legal experts, it does not matter if there are nuances in the law; think about how many people get their ideas about the Constitution from episodes of Law and Order. This legislation arms anyone to simply cry “Religious Freedom!” in their best William Wallace voice, and then watch as tragedy unfolds. What is a trans* person is beaten half to death in small town Indiana, and the only available doctor is a person who believes that transgender persons are sinful and that touching them will render him or her unclean? He or she now has the right to withhold services, even if the trans* person dies.

This is not hyperbole. This is where we are heading. As a pastor, a religious person, and an American, this legislation terrifies me. I’m asking all citizens of the country to pay attention to what is going on in their own legislatures. Similar efforts have been made in my own state of Ohio, and I fear that the recent signing by Gov. Pence might embolden lawmakers here. I plan to redouble my efforts to make it clear that religious freedom does not involve violating the civil rights of other citizens. In a social contract, we all have to make compromises.But no one should be forced to compromise his or her basic safety and pursuit of happiness because someone else is able to use religion as a justification for prejudice.

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