Controversy continues to surround a recent string of state bills supposedly designed to emulate the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), but which opponents say pervert the 1993 law in ways that make religion a weapon to discriminate against others — namely, LGBT people. Lawmakers across the country are facing staunch criticism for introducing similar “religious liberty” bills, but the backlash has been particularly heated for the governors of Indiana and Arkansas, both of whom have responded to national outcry by calling on their state legislatures to “fix” their state RFRAs to ensure they cannot be used to deny services to LGBT people.
Unsurprisingly, supporters of LGBT rights are celebrating these short-term victories, noting how elected officials in Indiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Georgia all appear to be responding to pressure insisting they rethink their RFRAs. But while substantial attention has been paid to the lawmakers, athletes, businesses, and celebrities who have challenged the new laws, less has been said about the steady flow of criticism from the exact group these RFRAs are ostensibly designed to protect: people of faith.
CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Dylan Petrohilos
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), or DoC, for example, was one of the first religious groups to speak out against Indiana’s RFRA last week. The group threatened to move its national convention, which was scheduled to bring around 6,000 to Indianapolis in 2017, if the bill was made law. The DoC followed through on that promise Wednesday afternoon, announcing that organizers would find another venue because Indiana’s RFRA creates a system where “attendees of the [2017 conference] could be denied services based on a business owner’s religious beliefs.”
Other Christians groups were also quick to express disapproval with Indiana’s law. Episcopal bishop Catherine Waynick, who oversees the Diocese of Indianapolis, issued a pastoral letter last week saying the state RFRA is “an embarrassment to ‘Hoosier Hospitality’” and noting that other groups — not just LGBT people — could be denied services under the bill. (Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly-gay Episcopal bishop, has also repeatedly denounced the law.) In addition, the United Church of Christ tweeted an image earlier this week with a none-too-subtle criticism of Indiana’s RFRA inscribed over a rainbow flag:
Our religion preaches love, not hate! Speak out against Indiana's discriminatory new law! pic.twitter.com/TvQiKWXmcn
— UCC (@unitedchurch) March 27, 2015
Similarly, the Presbyterian Church (USA), which recently voted to embrace same-sex marriage as a denomination, decried the Indiana RFRA in its original form but expressed hope that the governor’s proposed “fix” would prevent people from denying others services by citing religion.
“We are deeply alarmed about the [RFRA] recently signed into law by Indiana Governor Mike Pence, and are concerned that its current wording could provide a legal excuse for individuals and corporations to use religious conviction as a reason to discriminate,” the statement read. “We are, however, pleased by a pledge from Pence on Tuesday to ‘fix’ the law to make clear that it does not allow for discrimination and his charge to state lawmakers to pass clarifying legislation this week.”
“We pray the governor and state legislators will be guided by a sense of justice and fairness as they work to craft new language,” they added.
Non-Christian voices have pushed back against the laws as well, many broadening their criticism to include other state RFRAs designed to discriminate. Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, said Indiana’s law “permit[s] blatant discrimination against the LGBT community.” The Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism decried the Indiana law, saying they were “deeply concerned” about its implications, and had harsh words for North Carolina’s bill, arguing it “undermine[s] the fundamental, bedrock American value of religious freedom.” And the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the oldest and largest rabbinic organization in North America, released a letter blasting bills that use religion to exclude, noting “bigotry in the name of religion is bigotry.”
As Antonia Blumberg of the Huffington Post pointed out yesterday, this groundswell of religion-based opposition is rooted in how the laws (especially in their current forms) potentially allow businesses to exclude not only LGBT individuals, but also other people of faith — a direct contradiction of the original intent behind the federal RFRA, which was to protect religious minorities. The Sikh Coalition sent letters to Indiana and Arkansas lawmakers on Wednesday praising the virtues of the federal RFRA but calling for amendments to keep the state versions from being used to discriminate, and the Islamic Society of North America noted that Indiana’s RFRA could be used to exclude Muslims.
“If a corporation refused to hire a person because they were a Muslim and their religious beliefs did not permit them to hire Muslims, then the prospective employee could not succeed in a lawsuit alleging discrimination against the corporation, because the [Indiana RFRA] is a defense to liability,” the press release read. “Similarly, the state government could not levy fines or other punishments against a corporation for discrimination.”
Even some theologically conservative Christian groups are speaking out against the new bills. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which represents 15 different Baptist denominations, published a statement on Wednesday criticizing the laws and debunking the oft-cited claim that they reflect the original federal RFRA.
“State RFRAs should mirror the delicate balance achieved in the federal law,” the statement read. “Both Indiana and Arkansas passed legislation that falls short of that goal in several ways, tilting the balance in favor of religious claimants and against the government’s ability to protect other compelling interests.”
The committee stressed they are not opposed to religious liberty legislation in general, however. Instead, they published a blog post yesterday that lifted up Utah’s recently-passed nondiscrimination law — which was supported by LGBT advocates but included sizable exemptions for religious groups — as a model for the rest of the country. But many supporters of LGBT rights argue that while the law is a victory for Utah, where most laws have religious exemptions, it shouldn’t be used as blueprint for other parts of the country, as it also could be used as a form of discrimination.
There are, of course, religious Americans who support these RFRAs in their current forms such as Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, and Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. But signs indicate that even these groups are beginning to reevaluate their positions: the Catholic bishops in Indiana, who oppose same-sex marriage and actively endorsed the state RFRA back in February as a “prudent way to ensure the religious freedom of Hoosier individuals and institutions,” surprised many analysts on Wednesday when they posted unusually even-handed comments about ongoing controversy.
“We urge all people of good will to show mutual respect for one another so that the necessary dialogue and discernment can take place to ensure that no one in Indiana will face discrimination whether it is for their sexual orientation or for living their religious beliefs,” the post read. “The Catholic Church is convinced that every human being is created in the image of God. As such, each and every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. This includes the right to the basic necessities for living a good life, including adequate healthcare, housing, education, and work.”
The Interfaith Alliance, a faith-rooted group that “celebrates religious freedom by championing individual rights, promoting policies that protect both religion and democracy,” has also publicly challenged the Indiana and Arkansas RFRAs. In addition, it distributed a press release today saying that the proposed “fix” for Indiana’s RFRA, announced this morning, “does not go nearly far enough,” adding “this legislation, even with the proposed changes, still reflects a partisan, sectarian ideology rather than any urgent need to protect religious freedom in Indiana.”