By Bob Smietana / Christianity Today
This is an abbreviated version of the story. For the full story, click here.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once warned that too much religious freedom would be “courting anarchy.”
This week, his prophecy came true—at least on the airwaves and in social media.
Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed in the wake of legal same-sex marriage for Hoosiers, caused widespread and angry debate. Critics say the Indiana law—and a pending religious liberty law in Arkansas—gives religious people a free pass to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
Supporters like Indiana Gov. Mike Pence say the law is needed to protect believers who feel under siege.
In the wake of the controversy, governors in Connecticut, Washington, and New York banned state employees from traveling to Indiana, while Star Trek actor and Twitter celebrity George Takei organized a #BoycottIndiana campaign. Corporate giant Wal-Mart, headquartered in Arkansas, has asked that state’s governor to veto the bill on his desk.
Under pressure, Pence has asked lawmakers to revise the law so that it can’t be used to discriminate.
Lawmakers tinkering with the RFRA language in recent years have turned it into a political minefield, says J. Brent Walker, executive director for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which has supported RFRA laws since the 1990s. The 1993 version protected believers against the government. Some newer state versions also protect corporations, and can be used in civil lawsuits between individuals.
Walker says now it’s time to take a break, since RFRA’s reputation has taken such a hit.
“I hate to say, ‘Take a deep breath,’ since it such a cliché,” he said. “But maybe we should take 100 deep breaths. Let’s hold off for a little while. In this toxic political environment, things will blow sky high.”
Current RFRA laws, like those in Indiana and Arkansas, were passed in the wake of legalized same-sex marriage. That was bad timing, said Walker, and led to accusations that RFRA is intended for discrimination against gays.
No judge is going to accept that faith allows people to discriminate, said Walker.
“RFRAs are not designed to allow people to discriminate,” he said. “The courts are almost certain to find that the state has a compelling interest in preventing discrimination.”
He thinks that those with religious objections to same-sex marriage should wait till the Supreme Court rules on the matter. Then they can sit down with those who support same-sex marriage and work out a compromise that works for everyone.
What to do with marriage is the big issue, he argued.
“The Christian ice cream shop is not going to turn away a gay couple,” he said. “A Christian car dealer is still going to sell cars to gay people. But baking a wedding cake, where you may have to take part in the ceremony or event, is something different.”
Indiana could follow the example of neighboring Illinois, which passed a RFRA law in the 1990s, and more recently, added protection for gays and lesbians. The dispute over RFRA gives lawmakers a chance to make peace for advocates of both religious freedom and equal protection laws for gays
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