Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Religion Vs. Civil Rights

Republicans are desperately fighting against the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in America. They just suffered a resounding defeat in Indiana.

Here is what happened. The Indiana legislature passed a bill designed to allow private businesses to refuse service to people they don’t like on the grounds of religious belief. According to the official digest of the law, “a state or local government action may not substantially burden a person's right to the exercise of religion”. In plain English, the Republicans were seeking to override local ordinances in Indianapolis and other cities which banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. This new law would have allowed a florist or restaurant to refuse service to homosexuals and then defend themselves on the basis of religious belief. Indiana has no state laws which ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

This law is called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because it would restore the right to discriminate against homosexuals, which had been removed by these local anti-discrimination ordinances. It is clear that the purpose of the Indiana RFRA was to continue the Republican struggle against gay rights. Last year Republicans failed in a legislative attempt to amend the Indiana constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Immediately Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana, said, “If there is no way to protect marriage as the union of a man and a woman, then we must protect the freedom of conscience, thought and speech on marriage in Indiana.” Other organizations which oppose same-sex marriage began to advocate that the Indiana legislature pass the RFRA, such as Advance America, which is explicit on its website about the anti-gay purpose of the law. When Gov. Mike Pence signed the RFRA, representatives of these groups were honored guests.

Then all hell broke loose. Major corporations who do big business in Indiana said the law was bad and this might keep them from spending money in the state. Angie's List announced it would cancel a proposed $40 million expansion project that meant 1,000 jobs in Indianapolis. Apple CEO Tim Cook said such laws are “dangerous”, and the president of the NCAA said he hoped the law would be amended. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce said it favored changing the state’s civil rights code to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. The CEO’s of Wal-Mart and Nike joined in the chorus criticizing the law. A number of states and cities banned officials from traveling to Indiana.

This is a classic case of the clash between two world-views: belief in universal equality and religious intolerance. Religious belief was used to justify earlier forms of discrimination. Some Christians asserted that passages in the Bible proved the inferiority and sinfulness of Jews and blacks, and thus made racist laws acceptable.

But the entry of big business, fearing economic repercussions, has changed the game. Indiana Republicans retreated as fast as they could. A “fix” was proposed that stated that the law could not be used to discriminate against gay customers. It passed the legislature within a few days, and Gov. Pence signed it hours later. But when asked whether it is wrong to discriminate against gay people, Gov. Pence has consistently refused to answer.

This is not a local Indiana issue, but a wider Republican effort to keep fighting the battle over gay rights. Senator Marco Rubio from Florida said businesses should have the right to discriminate. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal defended the right of businesses to deny services to homosexual couples. Jindal said he did not support “special legal protections” for the gay community.

A poll last fall shows that Americans are still divided about whether a wedding-related business should be allowed to refuse services to a gay couple: 49% said no, and 47% said yes. Breaking down those figures, it is older white evangelical Republicans who believe such discrimination should be allowed.
As long as the most conservative Republicans, those most likely to vote in primaries, demand that their party fight against equality for homosexuals, Republican politicians seem incapable of resisting. They line up with the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian President Putin in asserting that their religion demands discrimination. Most Christians, here and in the rest of the world, disagree.

But they are losing their battle. A similar legislative battle in Arkansas also ended in changes to the proposed law. The Georgia legislature let a similar bill die quietly. Republican governors in Michigan and North Dakota have urged their legislatures to ban discrimination against gays. The clumsy effort in Indiana to encourage discrimination has backfired.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 7, 2015

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