Initial Thoughts on RFRA

In the last blog, I wrote about Senator Rubio. One of the things I like most about him is that he is willing to invite others into the Republican tent. He doesn’t automatically write off the Latino vote; instead, he talks with members of that community to identify areas of common ground. Similarly, he gently rebuked Mitt Romney for his categorization of 47% of Americans as “takers.” Rubio recognizes that sometimes people are born or fall into bad circumstances beyond their control. This characteristic has been blasted by some hard-line, extremist Republicans, but I think Rubio has it right.

And, although I fervently identify as a Republican, I am disappointed by those same hard-line, extremist social conservatives living in Indiana who have dug in their heels regarding the State’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

I do feel bad for some Christians who have been left on the hook for astronomical damages after refusing to open their property for a homosexual wedding, etc. While I would not refuse to serve a gay or lesbian individual, I also would not sue a family farm, etc., for refusing to let me wed on their property. Would I publicly shame them? Probably. Would I bitch about them to friends and family? Absolutely. Would I take them to court (or, even worse, a local civil rights administration) to deprive them of their homestead? No. But others have chosen to do so. I believe these are the actions that have driven Hoosier Republicans to pass RFRA. They genuinely want to protect constituents’ ability to act (or decline to act) in a manner consistent with their religious beliefs.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean enacting the RFRA was the proper decision. From a pragmatic standpoint, it does open the door for discrimination. While I do believe that Republicans intended to protect religious beliefs, is ludicrous to ignore the fact that RFRA was passed in the legislative session immediately after homosexual marriage became legally permissible in Indiana. It’s also important to recognize that, while they have been the most vocal opposition group, gays and lesbians are not the only ones at risk of being discriminated against under RFRA. Several years ago, I remember reading Christopher Hitchens’ book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. She refused to purchase an elevator for a New York orphanage she ran, claiming that the orphanage’s funds needed to be expended elsewhere. Although perhaps a bit far-fetched, under an RFRA-type law her attorneys could have made an argument that Catholic dogma mandates helping one another and, as Mother Teresa wanted, orphanage employees could carry disabled people up and down stairs. That way, the Church could have carried out more important activities with the funds, such as feeding the poor. Less far-fetched, what if a religious organization believed that disabled people were made that way by an evil force (i.e., the devil)? Could they refuse service to a paraplegic or a blind person?

As a Hoosier, I hate to hear that so many organizations are pulling out of Indiana. As Mayor Ballard has stated, Indianapolis has worked for decades to make the city the tourist destination that it is. Nevertheless, an organization I am affiliated with has its constituents clamoring that the conference be moved. Were it not for over $100,000 in contractual losses the organization would face in moving elsewhere, the organization would be long gone. I doubt it will return in future years unless something is done.

Of course, that’s not to say that a decision is inherently good or bad based upon its public reception. Indeed, many legislative activities that need to be conducted (e.g., Medicaid reform) are politically unpopular. Yet, this bill simply trades civil rights for one constituency for the civil rights of another constituency. That’s the risk of delving into messy social issues.


Source of Income Discrimination in Indy

Monday evening the City-County Council tie voted (14-14) on Proposal 215, which would amend the Municipal Code to forbid landlords from discriminating against (potential) tenants based on source of income. In other words, a landlord could not refuse to rent to an individual solely because that individual receives support from a non-preferred source, such as the federal government. Opponents viewed this proposal as a way to force the acceptance of Section 8.

Normally, I would not support a law that reduces individual freedom. However, housing discrimination is a real problem. Right here in Indianapolis.

This November, the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana released an audit report on Section 8 denial rates within Marion County. Of 51 tests conducted, a whopping 42 rental properties refused to accept housing vouchers. This means that only 14% of housing providers tested were willing to accept vouchers!

The audit also revealed that last year, over 7000 Marion County residents (4.6% of renters) received vouchers. The demographic breakdown of voucher recipients is as follows: 89% black, 8% white, 1% Hispanic, and 1% other; 18% had disabilities; and 31% had an individual over the age of 51 listed as the head of household.

While the audit’s findings on how race plays into discrimination were incredibly eye-opening (you really should read the entire report), I want to focus on my area of expertise – people with disabilities. As mentioned, 18% of Section 8 voucher recipients are people with disabilities. Surely, some of these individuals can probably live independently. But what about those who can’t?

Poverty and unemployment rates within the disability community are ridiculous. According to the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, only 20% of people with disabilities participate in the labor force. Of those still trying to find jobs, the unemployment rate is over 11% – more than double the unemployment rate of individuals without disabilities.

Sure, I’ve known some people with disabilities who are content to play video games and enter contests all day, at the expense of community interaction. However, the vast majority of people with disabilities that I know have sought higher education, work experience, and have hit the pavement to find employment. However, they struggle due to lack of necessary supports and, while I hate to admit it, the stigma that people with disabilities cannot perform as aptly as nondisabled employees. I don’t mean to get off track and venture into employment tangents, I want to demonstrate that not all recipients of housing assistance are lazy ne’er-do-wells.

If landlords can regularly discriminate against these people, where are they to live? Sadly, my guess is nursing homes. If people are sufficiently disabled (i.e., they need assistance with activities of daily living) and have nowhere else to go, case managers will have an obligation to help transition these individuals to a “safe” place. Adult foster care? Group homes? Nursing homes? Yes, not my idea of safe, but it’s where the difficult-to-place get placed.

So, in the way, by failing to protect the freedom of voucher recipients, we take away independence. Instead of contributing to the cost of a community-based housing voucher, taxpayers can take on the $5000+ expense of a nursing home.

And why? Because certain councillors don’t want landlords to have to accept all sources of income. The proposal does not require landlords to accept voucher holders no matter what – it merely forbids them from turning people away solely based on the source of their income. Why would a landlord reject income? Money is money. Who cares where it comes from?

Maybe the problem is not actually the money, but rather the person offering it.

Fortunately, the tie vote resulted in the proposal being sent back to the Rules and Public Policy Committee. A new hearing will be held January 27th. Talk to your Councillors and share your solutions!