In a country that staunchly upholds the virtue of secularity, it seems paradoxical that government legislation has, in recent years, been increasingly manipulative of religion as a means to perpetuate oppression and discrimination. Ties between conservativism and religious integrity too often bolster a front against social reform and inhibit the spread of tolerance, a truth that is exemplified by the passing of Indiana’s “religious freedom” law. Signed by Governor Mike Pence this past week, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act essentially permits Indiana business owners to deny members of the LGBTQ community services under the pretense of adhering to moral obligations, masking the obvious prejudicial behavior that such a code legitimizes. The written intention of the RFRA is to prevent state and local governments from “substantially burdening a person’s ability to exercise their religion,” but by opening a platform for conflict and bigotry, the act will surely prove to be an instrument of repression rather than an arbiter of liberty. (Human Rights Watch, “Dispatches: Freedom to Discriminate in Indiana?”, 03.30.15)
Considering Gov. Pence’s position as a prospective presidential candidate for 2016, public reception of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is a crucial determinant of the success of his impending campaign; with enraged civil rights groups and businesses uniting across the nation in their threats to boycott the state, Pence is now being blindsided by a backlash of commercial, civil, and political dissent more dramatic and widespread than any reaction he previously anticipated. “I support religious liberty, and I support this law,” Pence stated, shocked by the repercussions of the RFRA, “But we are in discussions with legislative leaders this weekend to see if there’s a way to clarify the intent of the law.” Pence also responded to criticism by maintaining that, “This bill is not about discrimination. And if I thought it was about discrimination I would have vetoed it.” But his language, ringing with political safe words like “clarify” and “intent,” is doing little to sway the law’s opponents—Hillary Clinton, a likely Democratic rival for Pence in the upcoming election, tweeted, “Sad this new Indiana law can happen in America today. We shouldn’t discriminate against ppl bc of who they love #LGBT.” Others, such as Apple CEO Tim Cook and NCAA President Mark Emmert, also condemned the law. Emmert noted that the NCAA is “… especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees,” and companies such as Yelp and Salesforce.com are in the process of blocking off any connections to the state as a protest of the RFRA. Though the bill was Republican-backed, party leaders are approaching the subject warily. Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush backed away initially from addressing their positions on the law directly, allowing correspondents to do so on their behalf; however, on Monday, March 30th, Gov. Bush announced, “I think Governor Pence has done the right thing, I think once the facts are established, people aren’t going to see this as discriminatory at all,” and following suit, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas replied that, “Governor Pence is holding the line to protect religious liberty in the Hoosier State, Indiana is giving voice to millions of courageous conservatives across this country who are deeply concerned about the ongoing attacks upon our personal liberties.” (Talking Points Memo, “Bush: Pence Did ‘The Right Thing’ On Religious Freedom Law”, 3.31.15)
Bush and Cruz are both presidential candidates for 2016, and considering the combative nature that this debate has taken on amongst these rising political contenders, there are violent implications for the course of the imminent campaign season.
The RFRA is geared toward alleviating oppressive government action, its written focus being that state and local authorities cannot “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” by forcing a business to cater to those whose lifestyles conflict with their personal beliefs. A commonly cited example of the new law’s beneficiaries is any firm involved in the wedding industry, ie. florist shops, bakers, venues, reception halls, entertainment groups, and bridal stores, for these business owners, if opposed to gay marriage, are being granted the ability to abstain from supporting the cause. Of course, the ignorance clouding the law is plainly offensive to the millions of Americans refusing to buy into the vague religious discourse of manipulative conservatives. To assume, first of all, that the business sector is a justifiable space for the expression of individual values beyond those of a company’s financial and service-related aims is flawed; using economic influence to promote certain principles in a culture gives businesses permission to threaten civil liberties and reverse governmental efforts towards maintaining a free society.
In the case of the RFRA, aren’t more citizens becoming “substantially burdened” by the restriction placed on their public lives? Isn’t it the law’s first priority to ensure that all people be treated equally within their communities, with fair access to the same resources as their fellow members of society? Discrimination cannot be eradicated, but it can be facilitated—and this law does just that. Furthermore, a phrase like “substantial burden” is problematic in and of itself, as it is laying the foundation for future court disputes over the specifics of the quality of a burden, or what constitutes a burden in respect to the functioning of a business; this is an issue not unlike the ongoing debate over prayer in public schools, but with this subject, proponents are lobbying more vehemently because it is their last desperate hope of lashing against the legislative support for gay marriage that is sweeping the nation. The law is purposefully unclear because the true message of the RFRA, one of biased malintent, is one that cannot be stated bluntly. It is reminiscent of the hatred and chaos that overtook Americans in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and although the RFRA is dragging Indiana in that direction, to acknowledge this would be detrimental to any political career.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is not unique—the federal government and about 19 other states have laws in place similar to this one—and sadly, a number of its supporters are sure to emerge in the coming 2016 presidential election. With the issue of religious obligation only realistically applying to a single group, the gay community, the law is jeopardizing the lives and wellbeing of real victims. Measures must be taken to recognize the law for its actual intentions and reverse the potential damage that could be done to the RFRA’s targets accordingly. But, in the meantime, we will just have to be content to wait for some clarification from Gov. Pence.
—Emily Sayer is a student at Vassar College.