Discriminatory Meltdown in Indiana

By Richard Nelson

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April 1, 2015

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To say something is happening in Indiana bigger than the Final Four, may sound like heresy to the faithful congregants of the Big Blue Nation in this holy week of NCAA tournaments.  But the uproar over the recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) threatens to drown out even the wildest of cheers from Cat’s fans on Saturday.

The Indiana bill to protect religious liberty is discriminatory and unjust, we are told by LBGT advocates, and we should all be very concerned and very, very afraid.  Connecticut and Washington governors banned official state travel to the Hoosier state.  Apple CEO Tim Cook penned an op-ed saying the bill would allow people to discriminate against their neighbors. Coach Cal and the other three Final Four coaches signed a joint statement condemning discrimination of all forms. Discrimination you say?

In the purest sense of the word, each coach practices a high level of discrimination. Those too short, slow, or incapable of putting the round ball through the hoop don’t make the cut. Before you cry foul, their peers in academic departments discriminate between honors students and those not making the grade. But talk about an individual’s moral conviction, ability to live it out, tolerating others in respect to their conscience, and by God, call in the National Guard because it’s a threat greater than the Fighting Irish’s near derailing of the Cat’s pilgrimage to their ninth national title.

So what is RFRA really about? Essentially the bill burdens the government to make a strong case before it infringes on someone’s religious liberty. It was passed near unanimously by Congress in 1993 and signed by then President Bill Clinton because a Supreme Court ruling made it easier for the government to win over an individual’s religious freedom claim. Twenty states, including Kentucky have RFRA laws on the books. Ten more have other RFRA-like protections through the courts.

According to University of Virginia Law Professor Douglas Laycock, RFRAs are about “churches feeding the homeless; sometimes the city or the neighbors object. They are about Muslim women wearing scarves or veils. They are about Amish buggies. They are about Sabbath observers. They are about church bells… And usually, the government wins. These laws have been under-enforced, not over-enforced.” The law has wide applicability and is much broader than where the debate has recently settled.

Ironically, the group that once said they didn't want the government to tell them how to live, is coercing government to tell conservatives what is morally acceptable. And they are punishing them if they don’t agree. It is no longer isolated to find florists, bakers, photographers and venue rentals with strong beliefs about human sexuality to be fined and punished for living consistent with their beliefs. There is discrimination going on but it is not where you think it is. Religious Freedom—if it means anything, means the freedom to make moral judgments and live out moral convictions based on the teachings of their faith.

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Director, Commonwealth Policy Center