When did the fight about religious liberty change from protecting the right to practice in private to asserting a right to impose a religious practice on a public space?
It’s a rhetorical question, because history tells us that for at least 200 years the religious rightwing has always wanted to impose Christianity on American society, just like radical Muslims want to impose a conservative version of Islam on civil societies across the Middle East. We know that the America’s religious rightwing has become more pushy over the past 35 years as it has become more politically powerful—thanks to a deal to join forces with those who support the economic interests of the wealthy. The campaign against the war on Christmas, the many state laws trying to restrict a woman’s reproductive rights, the demands that the state pay for religious education through voucher programs, the demonizing of Michael Schiavo and passage of “Terri Schiavo” laws—these are some of the steps that the Christian right has taken to impose its religious values on the rest of the country.
But we do live in a secular society and sometimes the religious right pushes too far.
The mainstream of business leaders, pundits, politicians and media have joined progressives in believing the new Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows business to discriminate against LGBT individuals and couples. Indiana Governor Mike Pence and other conservative supporters of the new law believe that it merely protects religious people and the organizations they control from having to take actions against their religious beliefs.
It sounds like a face-off between two rights, each with equal standing, but it’s really not. There is no right to refuse to sell goods or services to anyone because you don’t approve of their private actions. Many people who support the law—Pence, the Wall Street Journal, Jeb Bush—insist that it won’t enable discrimination against LGBT, although the comments of Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker all suggest that they don’t care about gay rights as long as religious rights are preserved.
An analysis of what the law means on the level of day-to-day actions reveals that at its heart, it represents an imposition of religion on civil society. Let’s start by all the real-world actions that the law might protect: Private worship in the home? Other laws protect that. The right to display religious imagery on one’s own property? Other laws protect that. The right to gather with others of like mind and pray or philosophize together? Other laws protect that. So why did we need this law if not to enable individuals and corporations to act out their beliefs in ways that do impinge on others?
Supporters of the law have yet to name one additional action not allowed previously that religious individuals and the organizations they control will now be able because of the new law.
Keep in mind that many businesses can quietly refuse to serve anyone, although as the recent case of Macy’s discriminating against blacks in New York City, you have to be pretty subtle about it. Take everyone’s favorite example of the florist or photographer who doesn’t want to work a same-sex wedding. A vendor can claim to be “too busy, jack up the price or market the business solely through religious vehicles such as the local Christian business directories. As long as no one discovers a pattern of discrimination, the vendor—be it florist, landlord or adoption agency—could always get away with it. If the interpretation of most in the mainstream and on the left is correct—and I think it is—the new law would enable these vendors to take their discriminatory attitudes out of the closet and explicitly tell LGBT people why they won’t serve them.
Thus, when we reduce the lofty words about religious freedom to specific actions, we can only conclude that either the law is unnecessary or that those supporting it do want to give people and corporations the right to refuse service to others because of a difference in religious practice.
Even as the Indiana governor and legislators raise a hue and cry about the hue and cry everyone else has raised about this ill-conceived law, they are nevertheless acting swiftly to amend it to make certain that no one can hide behind it to discriminate.
The reason for this rear guard action is money: They fear that businesses will take theirs away from the state. In the few days since the Indiana legislature passed and Pence signed the law, large employers in Indiana and all over the country have protested loudly. Indianapolis-based Angie’s List has canceled a $40 million office expansion. The Gap, Apple and Levi Strauss have all come out against the law, as have the administrations of Indiana and Butler Universities. So has the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which is holding its basketball finals in Indianapolis and has an extensive operation in Indianapolis. Several smaller organizations have already canceled conventions planned for Indiana’s largest city.
Those who believe that the United States is a secular nation should naturally rejoice that the Indiana state legislature is going to fix the new law to make certain no one can use it to discriminate against others in the marketplace. But we should mourn the fact that Indiana’s elected officials are not acting from a sense of right and wrong, but rather reacting to what the moneyed interests want. It reflects the hypocrisy of many of the politicians who follow the classic demagogue playbook in upholding the views of the religious right. Their support is not sincere, but part of a snow job to gain support for economic programs and policy that hurt 99% of the country but help their real employers—the super wealthy.
Once again, in the immortal words of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman, “When money talks, no one listens to the accent.”