Religious Freedom Restoration Acts

Today is Friday, March 27, 2015.

As I understand it, there is a federal law signed by Bill Clinton called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that allegedly makes sure there is no religious discrimination within the federal government and its agencies. The Supreme Court ruled that the law only applies to the federal government, and as a result, since 1997, there have been 19 states that have passed these RFRAs. However, what is happening at the state level is a cynical attempt to remove discrimination protections for LGBT in the face of the expected Supreme Court ruling coming in June regarding marriage equality.

The most recent state to pass such a law is Indiana. Governor Pence signed the law earlier this week. Others are moving through state legislatures in Utah, Arkansas and Georgia. The problem with these current laws is that they are specifically targeting the LGBT communities. The Indiana law makes it clear a merchant may refuse service to a gay person simply out of ‘religious conscience’. That was never the intent of the federal law, nor was it the intent in a number of the earlier state laws.  As the anti-gay religious communities realize they are losing this battle in the courts, their anti-gay organizations are hemorrhaging money and losing credibility, and marriage equality seems certain to become the law of the land, they are seeking legislative assurances that they will not have to treat or deal with gay people if it violates their ‘religious conscience.’

In other words, they are seeking legislative rights to discriminate, but they are wrapping their discrimination in religion and tying it with the bow of bigotry. It is one thing to refuse service to someone for specific unsocial behavior–intoxicated, high, inappropriately dressed for the type of business, being accompanied by a pet, or any other singular reason for one specific person. However, to allow a merchant to refuse service to an entire group of people based on their identity and social status seems to me a blatant violation of the 14th Amendment.

I realize this is a slippery slope argument, but what if a Christian refused service to a Muslim? Or what if a gay merchant refused service to a Christian, or say, a Republican, by using the argument that it violates his/her conscience and belief system?  I doubt the religious communities and social conservatives would accept that as legal.  Yet, these new state laws are loosely written enough to allow such scenarios. In the end, this will turn into a litigation nightmare and an economic boon for lawyers. And given precedents over the years, there is no doubt the Courts will rule such laws are unconstitutional.

We know, though, that someone in Indiana, for example, will push a merchant not to serve him/her because of their sexual identity, then sue them and the state for redress. It will take a couple years to go through the system, but the ACLU, Lamda Legal, and the HRC will certainly take these cases all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.

So what is in it for Indiana and the other states who are now passing these so-called ‘religious protection’ laws? Since Governor Pence signed the law into effect this week, there have been calls for boycotting the state and petitions circulating to remove major sporting events, conferences and conventions from venues in Indiana. Salesforce, a multiple billion dollar cloud computing company, has canceled all employee work-related trips to Indiana and has begun limiting investments in the state.  The CEO of Salesforce has also warned other corporate CEOs that they need to scrutinize the situation in order to protect their employees and Indiana clients from discrimination.  In addition, there are now calls for removing the regional college football championships from Indianapolis and the NCAA has issued a statement saying they are concerned about their players and fans who could face potential discrimination. GenCon, the largest comic convention in the country has a contract with Indiana to hold their event there, but has now stated they will re-evaluate their relationship with the state.

From my perspective, there is not much in it for any state to pass such a law that specifically targets the LGBT community for discrimination by packaging the law in ‘religious conscience’.  UPDATE: Utah just now passed a similar RFRA as I am writing this blog. I suppose it is par for the course.  You can’t force people to like or support you, but you can challenge bigotry and discrimination where you see it.  I suppose it is now my civic responsibility to cross these states off my ‘to visit’ list. And should I ever have to drive through them, I will certainly not spend any money there or as little as I have to.

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