Thursday, April 2, 2015

Indiana’s RFRA is Only the Tip of a Much More Dangerous Issue

Yes, Indiana has passed a law that some heard as a statement in favor of religious freedom. Others have challenged it as a form of legalized discrimination. At issue is not so much religious freedom but the ability for businesses to openly engage in discriminatory practices against people out of religious conviction. With all due respect to all involved in this firestorm of controversy, this morning Indiana lawmakers have released changes to the law that are intended to clarify and define it as explicitly non-discriminatory. These much-needed changes, however, only place a small band aid on hemorrhaging wound the initial passage of RFRA has created. It is important to understand why this law, regardless of intent, has divided us along such vicious lines.

            RFRA laws have been in effect since President Bill Clinton first initiated the federal law in 1993. The intent and structure of the law was to provide protection to individuals facing violations of their religious freedoms. For example, a person wishing to not be compelled to work on Sunday in order to attend worship services could use the federal RFTA to protect the right to worship without penalty. The law was designed to protect individuals from discrimination from organizations, businesses, and government solely on the basis of religious faith.

            Indiana’s law took the law to a whole new level. The original statute radically changed the language from protecting “individuals” to protecting “persons.”  It then goes on to define persons as individuals, organizations, partnerships, and corporate entities and various forms of businesses. In other words, Indiana’s law no longer protects individual people in upholding their free exercise of religion. It protects business owners and corporations from exercising religious priority. It screams of the Hobby Lobby case from last year which essentially understands that a company has the same rights as an individual person—a dangerous trend that is actually eroding individual freedom in favor of corporate rule!

            At the core of the controversy lies a very dangerous, two-edged sword of absolute fear.

·       Many people who have felt the scourge of discrimination feel the unbelievable fear that an individual is powerless to stand against the forces of hate and oppression of large entities. Call the discriminating entities the church, a restaurant, or a large corporation, the law strikes fear into the hearts of those whose genuine humanity has been threatened by hate and discrimination.
·       Many people feel that the moral and fundamental faith foundations of their religious faith are fundamentally threatened because of sweeping changes in our nation’s understanding of marriage. They feel a tremendous fear the world as we know it is about to destroy their way of life and all the moral, religious, and theological priorities they hold dear.

Yet, in transcending the fears, there is a more foundational realty that this law—in both its original form and currently proposed fixed state, fails to understand—simple humanity! In-so-much as every human being is truly endowed with the imaginable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that fundamentally requires that the laws of the land uphold the basic humanity of all—regardless of religious priority, as well as ethnicity, gender, age, education, occupation, income, gender identity, sexual orientation, or … whatever.

Putting it into real practice comes down to some of the real issues that have fueled this debate. Hypothetically speaking, if a couple wants to get married and they choose to have pictures made of the wedding it is because they want to share in the simple cultural and human joy of looking back at wedding photos and remembering the start of their life together in matrimony. What difference should it make if the couple happen to be of the same, or perhaps, opposite gender? Yet, when a professional wedding photographer says to them that their wedding does not deserve photographic attention, it is not simply a denial of service. It is a denial of their humanity.

            The changes to the law, assuming they are approved by the Indiana State Legislature and signed by the Governor, are a big step in the right direction, but as they presently exist, they still betray a fundamental belief that only flesh-and-blood human beings have human and religious rights. Corporations are property, not people. The law must understand that and nothing short of a complete repeal of Indiana’s RFRA will uphold this.

            Unfortunately, this one state law is only the tip of a very large iceberg that has the potential to rupture far more than a few feathers in the Indiana State Capitol. Recent Supreme Court rulings granting individual rights and freedoms to corporate entities, and the vast blessing of vast corporate wealth to speak without impunity threatens to undermine our society in ways far greater than gay wedding pictures.

Yes, this issue has sparked a lot of emotional energy. But, as such issues tend to be, it will fade from the news as quickly as it emerged and our media-driven political culture will find a new cause to shout for or against in no time. Likewise, the Indiana law may stand as is, it may get “fixed,” and it may get repealed. Anything’s possible. What’s important is that we take hard and long look at the direction this nation is going in terms of the rights of an individual person, created in God’s image and called good, versus the rights corporations, corporate wealth, and corporate power over-and-above real people. That is the bigger issue! 

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