Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues., or Wed., April 6, 7 or 8
In a nation where 80 percent of adults say they’re Christians (according to an ABC News poll), where the First Amendment guarantees freedom to worship, and where the faith itself preaches mercy, forgiveness and love, are such laws necessary?
This Holy Week, legislatures in Indiana and Arkansas are revising bills that originally seemed to encourage “No-go zones” for unwelcome Americans, whether gay or single parents, unmarried couples or divorced. People are understandably outraged when they hear of some religious sects forbidding people they don’t like from being in certain places, whether Tikrit or Terre Haute, Ind., Jerusalem or Jonesboro, Ark. And the first versions of the statutes in Indiana and Arkansas would have given self-identified religious people the freedom to discriminate and the right to a court hearing if anyone complained.
“People latch onto a (religious freedom law), thinking this is a device to protect themselves from social change,” University of Illinois law professor Robin Fretwell Wilson told the Chicago Tribune.
Republican presidential hopefuls including Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker all defended Indiana’s law as a state version of the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but they’re wrong. Arguably, it was the exact opposite.
“The bill does not mirror the federal law,” said Arkansas’ Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson. “We’re not going to be a state that fails to recognize the diversity of our workplace, our economy and our future.”
Instead of protecting people of faith against an intrusive government, like the 1993 law (and the Bill of Rights), these new laws protect “citizens” (broadly defined to include companies) from litigation by other citizens who weren’t served under the guise of exercising a personal belief. They’re a chilling reminder of past arguments for excluding women, forbidding interracial marriage and refusing service to African Americans.
In fact, such measures were prompted by aggrieved people complaining about merchants rejecting gay customers and a recent court ruling striking down Indiana’s ban on same-sex marriage.
Now, however, revisions include prohibitions on discriminating against fellow citizens and citing faith as the excuse. That’s the case in Illinois, where the 2011 Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act, sponsored by Ill. State Sen. Dave Koehler (D-Peoria) dovetails with state bans on discrimination.
“If you’re going to say that somebody is exempted from [Illinois’] Human Rights Act under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that would mean that people could discriminate based on religious views,” said Northwestern University law professor Andrew Koppelman. “It’s a slippery slope.”
That was obvious not only to gay activists and human rights advocates, but to a wide range of voices not pandering to an extremist base like some legislators. Protesting were Walmart and the AFL-CIO, Eli Lilly and NASCAR, the Chamber of Commerce and the rock band Wilco, Levi Strauss and AFSCME, the NCAA and Apple.
Such laws are “dangerous,” according to Apple CEO Tim Cook, who added. “They go against the very principles our nation was founded on.”
Indeed, these laws distort faiths by promoting intolerance, not the teachings of Jesus, for one. He scolded the priests and powers of his time and befriended tax collectors and the poor, the sick and sinners.
Plus, that slippery slope logically could empower people from employing, serving or renting to people with tattoos or with trimmed beards (see Leviticus 19:27), to community bankers who make loans (see Luke 6:35), people bearing false witness, adulterers…
Freedom to practice one’s faith doesn’t mean the power to coerce conformity, and tolerance doesn’t mean acceptance. Not to trivialize an important issue, but Sly Stone in 1968 sang, “Sometimes I’m right, and I can be wrong; my own beliefs are in my song…
“I am no better and neither are you. We are the same, whatever we do. You love me, you hate me, you know me and then you can’t figure out the bag I’m in. I am everyday people…”
Most everyday Americans are sensible “live and let live” folks or are comfortable enough in their faith that others’ beliefs aren’t threatening. Plus, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, a record 59 percent of us support same-sex marriage.
“Different strokes for different folks,” Sly sang.
[PICTURED: The front-page editorial of the March 31, 2015, Indianapolis Star.]