Timing is everything, they say. Well, I don’t know that anything is actually “everything.” But there’s no question that the coincidence of the national debate surrounding Indiana’s (and maybe Arkansas’s) passage of a new Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and Passover, often called the Festival of Freedom, is certainly something.
What does it mean to be free, to restore freedom, to legislate freedom? And while we are at it, what does the much debated law actually say and mean? It’s quite amazing how many people, including those with very strong opinions about it, really have very little understanding of the issues raised.
It’s amazing how few people understand that the law passed in Indiana is modeled on the federal RFRA passed with the full support of President Bill Clinton in 1993. Indiana’s statute provides less latitude to government than do RFRA laws in 20 other states, including Connecticut, whose governor is leading a boycott against Indiana.
The Indiana law requires that people’s religious beliefs be “substantially burdened” before they can claim that their religious freedom is being violated. The difference, as some are pointing out, is that Connecticut law allows that claim with any burden at all.
Indiana allows a burden imposed by the government to be asserted as a defense in a suit against a private party (except now in discrimination cases). While there is nothing inherently discriminatory in the law, it could allow private citizens to protect their own religious views, not only from government impositions, but even otherwise legitimate requests for service from other private citizens, e.g. a gay couple wanting two male figurines placed on top of their wedding cake. It could do that; it would need to be litigated in court and the law interpreted by judges who side with the baker-plaintiff.
Of course, the real irony here is that many proponents and many detractors of this law claim to speak for God with equal certainty about what exactly God wants. Perhaps the certainty and stridency expressed by both sides is itself the problem here, or at least the real barrier to solving it. The track record of people so ready to speak on behalf of God, or God’s will, is less than stellar, to say the least.
And on a practical level, do we really need TV personalities telling us what is and isn’t God’s will, as they have been doing on social and virtually every other form of media? Is the country really better off with news commentators glibly comparing Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to Alabama’s late Gov. George Wallace, as I have heard now more than once?
There must be a way to combine passionate advocacy with spiritual and intellectual humility. If not, then the two sides are painfully alike, and most of us will suffer from an increasing polarization that will make it harder to do what most Americans want – which is to have their own rights respected and to not curtail the rights of others.
This issue is like abortion. Most Americans are actually both antiabortion and supportive of a woman’s right to choose. How many advocacy groups make that their position?
However well-intentioned people may be on either side of this issue, legislation and the inevitable litigation are not good substitutes for creative legal interpretation of existing laws and the genuine conversations about religious freedom. For starters, we could simply commit to examining with others who do not share our views the following two notions:
First, freedom of religion is more than the narrowly constructed freedom of worship that progressives often think it is. Bakeries or a flower shops, for some at least, are as much places that require protection for the free exercise of religion as is a church. For many people of faith, left or right, the free expression of religion is a 24/7 thing.
Second, freedom of religion is not, and was never, intended to be a guarantor that one could sidestep other fundamental rights in order to make others conform to one’s own religious views, as religious conservatives often think. Pursuing one’s view of what God wants is fine, but the state is not meant to be the agent of that — for the left or the right.
As Passover begins at sundown, I will be thinking about the relationship between celebrating freedom and celebrating the centrality of conversation and questions. That’s the approach the animates the millennia-old ritual called seder, the dinner symposium that brings together family and friends regardless of politics and policy.
Passover invites all of us to eat and drink together, and to feel the remarkable dignity that comes from asking big questions about what it means to be free, to protect one’s own freedom and to do the same for others.
Interested in more religion stories? Read more from Acts of Faith: