Dishwashers in the Revolution

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Breaking Down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

***NOTE: I realize that after some initial feedback from posting this, I’ve not indicated clearly some important elements that make this law so controversial. I’ve edited the article below to include these elements more clearly.

Not sure how many of you keep up with the latest political news, but I wanted to take this opportunity to weigh in on the recent happenings in Indiana (and Arkansas). I thought the topic was relevant, as it has to do with religion and politics.

Today as I was scrolling through Twitter, I came across this tweet from the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo:

Andrew Cuomo

@NYGovCuomo

7h
Today I banned non-essential state travel to Indiana. Statement:on.ny.gov/1MuFzWA

Naturally, I was intrigued about why New York would be banning non-essential state travel to Indiana, and so I did a little digging. Here’s a headline I found on Google from the NY Times dated March 27, 2015:

“Indiana Law Denounced as Invitation to Discriminate Against Gays”

So now I’m curious. What is happening out there? What is this law and what are people saying about it?

It turns out, Indiana passed a law on March 27th called the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” and it has caused an uproar throughout the country. Influential people ranging from Hillary Clinton to Miley Cyrus denounced the passing of this law and have labeled it as a law that opens the door for discrimination against the LGBT community. Not only have people responded against the law verbally, but as seen above in the ban against official state travel to Indiana, entire companies have vowed to stop doing business in Indiana because of this new law.

So naturally I thought, what the heck is in this law that people are so upset about?

A short summary that I gleaned from the media’s coverage of this law is that it allows for individuals to defend their action (or inaction) on religious grounds, and if their action (or inaction) is challenged in court as discriminatory, they can utilize this law as a defense for what they chose to do (or not do). The exception being that if someone does something that is life-threatening, the government has just-cause to put an end to it.

Everyone has taken this law and said: look, it opens up the opportunity for discrimination against the LGBT community! While I am a strong supporter of the LGBT community, I had my skepticism about whether or not the law was even really about that at all. Rather than taking someone else’s word for it, I dug up the actual legislation, and here’s what it says:

“Sec. 3. (a) As used in this chapter, “exercise of religion” means the practice or observance of religion. (b) The term includes a person’s ability to: (1) act; or (2) refuse to act; in a manner that is substantially motivated by the person’s sincerely held religious belief, regardless of whether the religious belief is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.”

One should note, that the law defines a “person” as both an individual, private citizen, as well as a company, organization, or corporation. This is controversial because, well, companies and organizations are not private citizens. This is an important feature of the law that I will clarify more about below.

After reading that I thought to myself, “Wow, that really might have real implications on the way a company acts in ways that may be discriminatory to individuals or communities like LGBT folks.” But all the same, is this really what this is about? Did the Indiana state government pass a law so that religious folks could deny services to the LGBT community, or is this just a precautionary uprising because of the remote possibility that this might happen?

Instead of assuming the religious conservatives were asking for this law so that they could refuse services to LGBT individuals or any other folks that don’t line up with their religious beliefs, I did some more investigating to see what the “positives” of a law like this might be, and here’s what I found from a “news” site called “The Daily Signal”:

“No one has the right to have the government force a particular minister to marry them, or a certain photographer to capture the first kiss or a baker to bake the wedding cake. Declining to perform these services doesn’t violate anyone’s sexual freedoms. Some citizens may conclude that they cannot in good conscience participate in a same-sex ceremony, from priests and pastors to bakers and florists. The government should not force them to choose between their religious beliefs and their livelihood.” (taken from “Indiana Protects Religious Liberty. Why That’s Good Policy.” The Daily Signal, March 30, 2015, found here: http://dailysignal.com/2015/03/26/indiana-protects-religious-liberty-why-thats-good-policy/)

The article links to another site, The Heritage Foundation, which outlines dozens of cases in which religious individuals refused to serve people in the LGBT community, based on the fact that they were religiously opposed to their way of life. It essentially highlights a number of cases in which people who offer public services, such as bakers and florists, refused to sell their goods to individuals who desired to purchase their goods because those individuals were gay. The shop owners even explicitly said things like: “I’m not comfortable with baking a cake for your wedding because I don’t believe in gay marriage.”

Here is the link for your own exploration:
http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2014/04/protecting-religious-liberty-in-the-state-marriage-debate

Some might say: “why should anyone be coerced into selling someone their goods or services if they choose not to?” And they might have a point. Should you as a private citizen have to offer services to someone you don’t want to work for? As a private citizen, no, you shouldn’t. The law protects you, as a private citizen, and gives you a choice about who you work for and what you do for them – no one should be coerced. BUT – when you own a public business and your reasons for denying someone a service is because you refuse to work with or for someone based on their sexual orientation or race – that’s called discrimination, and there are laws the prohibit discriminatory practices in business.

It should be noted that it’s important to delineate the above statement between a private citizen and a public company or organization. A private citizen is protected under this act  (and the federal RFRA) to be able to make choices based on their religion in how they conduct themselves. This means, that someone who likes to bake cakes in their home on an individual basis and who occasionally gets paid to make a cake for a wedding still has the right to refuse to make a cake for someone who asks based on religious grounds. But someone who owns a public cake shop, that makes its services available to the general public, should not be able to pick and choose who it sells its goods to based on race, religion, or sexual orientation. This is an important delineation, as some of the concern I’ve heard is that a private citizen should not be forced to do something they don’t want to, just because someone asked them to. There is an important distinction between private citizens and public entities, and this law essentially treats public businesses as private citizens.

60 years ago, businesses used to refuse to serve black people based solely on the color of their skin – not on their ability to pay for the services or their integrity or for any other reason – and it took a political uproar from an entire population to get laws passed to make sure that businesses didn’t discriminate against serving people based on the color of their skin. This issue is no different. If a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person walks into your store and is interested in purchasing something from you, you cannot deny that to them based on the fact that you don’t agree with their lifestyle.

So after investigating the issues on my own, and coming to my own conclusions, I determined for myself that I agree with the uproar. Laws passed that create opportunities for individuals or companies to lawfully discriminate against an individual based on their sexual orientation or race or religion is wrong and should be changed. Indiana is not the only state to have passed this law – in fact they were the 20th state to pass it – and just today, March 31st, 2015, Arkansas passed its own version of the same law and with the same title – but with the difference that these other states’ laws reflect the federal law, which does not treat a public entity as a private citizen and therefore does not make room for discrimination in this same way.

Indiana is being made an example of; while they aren’t the first or most recent state to enact this law, but they were the state that brought the issues with this legislation to the forefront. I’m proud to say that my state, New York, has chosen to stand by the LGBT community and to take a stance against discriminatory practices. I can only hope that our fellow states who believe this law opens the door for legal discrimination will put pressure on Indiana and the other states who have passed this law to amend its language to protect the LGBT community and others that might be discriminated against as a result of this legislation.

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One comment on “Breaking Down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

  1. Pingback: Breaking Down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act | SocialWorkSynergy

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This entry was posted on March 31, 2015 by in Uncategorized.
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