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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Religious Freedom vs. Intolerance: Is the State of Indiana on God's Side?

The legislature of the State of Indiana recently passed (and the governor has signed) what has been referred to as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Some of the supporters of the legislation have stated that it will protect Christian business owners from being compelled to do business with (or provide their services to) homosexuals. Indiana Governor Mike Pence, however, refused to answer ABC's George Stephanopoulos' repeated question about whether or not the new law would allow a Christian florist in Indiana to discriminate against a gay couple seeking his/her services. When pressed, the governor insisted that tolerance was a two-way street, and that he was merely seeking to protect the religious liberties of the citizens of his state.

Proponents of the legislation have been quick to point out that President Clinton signed a federal version of this legislation in 1993, and that President Obama supported an Illinois version of it as a state senator in 1998. However, in asserting this fact, they conveniently fail to mention a few important qualifiers: 1) American public attitudes toward homosexuals have changed dramatically since the 1990s (including those of the two presidents cited), 2) The Supreme Court struck down the provision of the federal law that made it applicable to the states (City of Boerne v. Flores - that's why states began passing their own versions of the law), and 3) The language of the federal law is substantially different from the Indiana law in addressing exactly who is protected under its provisions (Federal: "A person whose religious exercise has been substantially burdened in violation of this section may assert that violation as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding and obtain appropriate relief against a government." Indiana: "As used in this chapter, 'person' includes the following: (1) An individual. (2) An organization, a religious society, a church, a body of communicants, or a group organized and operated primarily for religious purposes. (3) A partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, a company, a firm, a society, a joint-stock company, an unincorporated association, or another entity that: (A) may sue and be sued; and (B) exercises practices that are compelled or limited by a system of religious belief held by: (i) an individual; or (ii) the individuals; who have control and substantial ownership of the entity, regardless of whether the entity is organized and operated for profit or nonprofit purposes." (the Mitt Romney argument that businesses and corporations are people too and should be regarded as having the same rights as individuals).

I would agree with Governor Pence that tolerance is a two-way street. A person is entitled to believe whatever they want to believe. No matter how offensive it may be to me or you, a person has the right to regard a homosexual as a sinner and an abomination. If their religious beliefs dictate that he/she should not associate with a gay person, they are certainly entitled not to associate with a gay person under our system. However, it has generally been recognized that any rights that we have can be curtailed or limited when they substantially interfere with or negate the rights of others (especially when the government is viewed as having a compelling interest in promulgating a single standard for everyone). In this respect, if a person chooses to form a business, incorporate or offer their services to the public, it has generally been understood that he/she is obligated to accommodate anyone who chooses to use their products and/or services (e.g. a hotel in Alabama is not allowed to refuse accommodations to an interracial couple).

As an individual, you are certainly entitled to believe that "God separated the races for a reason, and that He doesn't want the races to mingle with each other and procreate." Nevertheless, as a nation, we have determined that you do not have a right to refuse your products or services to a person of another race. In other words, you are free to believe whatever you want to believe and refrain from inviting whomever you don't like into your own home; but you are not free to exclude someone from your public place of business (or refuse to provide them with services offered to the public at large). You are entitled to believe that God permits polygamy, but you are not entitled to have more than one husband or wife at a time under current U.S. law. You are entitled to believe that the first chapter of Genesis adequately explains the existence of the universe and life on this planet, but you are not permitted to impose that understanding on society at large. You are entitled to believe that participating in or supporting warfare is wrong, but you are still obligated under U.S. law to pay your taxes (which are then used to support the U.S. military and any war those forces may be engaged in at the time). You are compelled by both secular and Divine law to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's!

Think about it: The Bible teaches that homosexuals should be put to death (Leviticus 20:13). You are entitled to believe that this is God's will, but if you go out into the square and start stoning a gay person you will quickly be placed under arrest and thrown into jail. Moreover, if you happen to kill the person in question and are convicted of the crime, you may be subject to execution at the hands of the government. Once again, you are allowed to believe whatever you want to believe; but you are not allowed to impose your beliefs on others - you are not allowed to do whatever you want to do. Don't like that? Go live at the South Pole!

When humans choose to live together, they have to respect and tolerate each other's differences or chaos would ensue. You don't have to like me, but you aren't permitted to throw a stone at me when we pass each other on the street. If you feel very strongly that God doesn't want you to bake a cake for a gay wedding, then maybe you should consider not offering your baking services to the public marketplace? The gay person could go to a different baker (hopefully there would be a gay baker or one who was at least friendly to gay people within the community); but what if there wasn't another baker to go to? How would you feel about a baker who refused to serve Atheists or Protestants?

Tolerance involves a willingness to accept the fact that everyone doesn't see things in the same way that you do - that doesn't mean that you have to change the way you see things. It does, however, imply respect for differences and a commitment to refrain from causing harm or suffering to those who happen to disagree with you. I've noticed that the rain still falls on nations that aren't Christian. I've noticed that God still permits Atheists to breathe the same air that Christians breathe. I guess it's a good thing that God's a little more tolerant than we are?


  1. Governor Pence has announced that the legislature of his state is going to "clarify" the language of the Indiana law to make plain that no one will have the right to refuse services to anyone within the state. In his words, "that would be the right thing to do!"

  2. Great! Roy and Mark.

  3. Thanks to Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson for sending his state's version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act back to the legislature in an effort to make it less discriminatory.