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.