In 1993, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed the Democrat controlled U.S. House of Representatives unanimously. It passed the U.S. Senate (also controlled by Democrats) by a vote of 97-3. It was signed into law by Bill Clinton.
RFRA, allows the government to place a “substantial burden” on someone’s religious beliefs and practice so long as the government can demonstrate that it’s doing so in pursuit of some “compelling government interest.” Assuming such a compelling interest exists, the government must pursue that interest in a way that is least restrictive to religious freedom. Sound sensible enough?
Yesterday, Indiana Governor, Mike Pence, signed into law a provision that does for his state what RFRA did at the federal level.
Why? While some folks—Bill Clinton, Governor Pence, all but 3 members of the 103rd Congress—believe that before government forces people to violate their religious beliefs it should have a good reason to do so, it seems a lot of other people think religious freedom is just a false-front for discrimination against gays and lesbians. Which explains why #BoycottIndiana is the top trend on Twitter right now.
The State of Indiana, it seems, is the new Brendan Eich.
Gen Con, the largest table-top gaming convention in the country, is considering moving out of state. That might not sound like a big deal, but it is: more than 50,000 gamers attend the convention every year, which has an enormous impact on the local economy.
The CEO of a large cloud-computing company—Salesforce, Inc.—declared that the outfit would boycott the state of Indiana, lest its customers or employees “face discrimination.” For what it’s worth, Salesforce gladly does business in communist China.
And the president of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, released a statement expressing his “concern” about the implications of the law and issuing a thinly veiled threat to go after the Hoosier state where it really hurts—college basketball. Indianapolis frequently hosts the men’s NCAA basketball tournament, including this year’s Final Four and national championship.
“Moving forward,” Emmert wrote, “we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.”
Think that’s an idle threat? A bill similar to Indiana’s was vetoed by Arizona’s Republican Governor, Jan Brewer, after the NFL threatened to move Super Bowl XLIX out of Arizona if the bill became law.
This is complete madness.
RFRA has been federal law for more than 20 years, during which time gays and lesbians have enjoyed unprecedented acknowledgment, acceptance, and approval. Yet a combination of demagoguery, falsehoods, and ideological myopia has convinced otherwise sane people that applying the principles of RFRA at the state level signals the arrival of a new Jim Crow era.
When Bill Clinton signed RFRA in 1993, he spoke of how faith is a defining part of the American character, and the irreplaceable role religion plays in building up and healing the wounds this nation suffers. And he warned that this role, and the protection of religion, must never be taken for granted, but rather, reaffirmed:
It is high time we had an open and honest reaffirmation of the role of American citizens of faith, not so that we can agree but so that we can argue and discourse and seek the truth and seek to heal this troubled land.
So today I ask you to also think of that. We are a people of faith. We have been so secure in that faith that we have enshrined in our Constitution protection for people who profess no faith. And good for us for doing so. That is what the first amendment is all about. But let us never believe that the freedom of religion imposes on any of us some responsibility to run from our convictions. Let us instead respect one another’s faiths, fight to the death to preserve the right of every American to practice whatever convictions he or she has, but bring our values back to the table of American discourse to heal our troubled land.
Can you imagine any politician of national prominence—from either party—uttering such words today, without facing charges of anti-gay bigotry? It’s becoming increasingly difficult. Which raises the troubling question: If the defense of religious freedom comes to be seen as the hallmark of bigotry, and the deep well of this nation’s religious soul is sealed off from public life, with what can we hope to heal the wounds of our troubled land?