RFRA – It’s Not About “Religious Freedom”

I’ve been observing some of the backlash that Indiana Governor Mike Pence has faced these last few days. After signing SB101 on this past Thursday, social media exploded and it doesn’t appear to be slowing any time soon.

A growing list of major corporations are slamming the law and the legislators for discrimination, notably including Yelp, Apple, Angie’s List, SalesForce, NCAA, NBA, the cities of Seattle and San Francisco, the rock band Wilco, the entire state of Connecticut, the entire Disciples of Christ denomination, and – embarrassingly, I think – the Indiana Pacers as well as the three major universities in the state (Indiana, DePaw and Butler Universities). See source here. And as the days go by, more seem to join this list.

Notably, social media activist and Star Trek legend George Takei has called for a boycott of the state of Indiana, writing, “I cannot help but think that if Christ ran a public establishment, it would be open to all, and He would be the last to refuse service to anyone. It is, simply put, the most un-Christian of notions.”

As a Christian and as a United Methodist pastor, I couldn’t agree more. This is simply unconscionable. Yes, I confess that I am a part of a denomination that is deeply divided on the issue of homosexuality and marriage equality. Even recognizing that division, the UMC stands firmly against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The UMC Book of Discipline (our book of laws and rules) notes that all persons are of sacred worth, and “We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.”

Governor Pence rounded the news shows on Sunday and spoke firmly against this strong backlash. He claims that this version of RFRA is simply about protections for individuals and businesses from “government overreach” and has nothing to do with discrimination. He then goes on to deflect onto President Obama, a claim I’ll leave alone but that has been addressed by this fact-check site.

Instead, I wanted to look specifically at whether or not the intention of this bill may be construed (or have the effect) of allowing and/or encouraging discrimination against LGBT persons. More importantly, is this some kind of hidden purpose?

To me, it looks that way.

Governor Pence would have us think differently. And yet when asked directly five times whether or not the law would allow businesses to refuse services to LGBT persons, the Governor would not answer. See the interview here.

But if the purpose is not to discriminate, why were amendments in both the State Senate and House that included protections for LGBT persons voted down? And why were three known anti-gay lobbyists present when Governor Pence signed the controversial bill into law?

This isn’t the first time we’ve used faith to discriminate. Maurice Bessinger was a Christian who only wanted white people to eat at any of his BBQ restaurants claiming that “slavery had been God’s will, that desegregation was Satan’s work, and the federal government was the Antichrist.” The US Supreme Court disagreed.

Before Loving v. Virginia reached the Supreme Court, lower court Judge Bazile wrote in opposition of mixed-race marriage in his option that “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” Again, the US Supreme Court disagreed.

It seems clear that this is pure discrimination hidden in a cloak of deception. It has nothing to do with “religious freedom” and is certainly not Christ-like. The Jesus I believe in spent time caring for those who are marginalized. The Jesus I believe in railed against this same kind of discrimination. The God I know invites humanity to move against social stereotypes and to grow the circle of love and acceptance ever-wider rather than smaller and more exclusive – note all of Acts 10 & 11, a story so important it’s told twice.

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