The first time I heard about the original Religious Freedom Restoration Act that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed into law, I thought it was silly.
When my team lost the game that would have taken it into the NCAA Final Four, I channeled my inner child and said, "I didn't want to go to stupid Indiana anyway!" (In typing that statement out, its childishness increased exponentially, given that I live less than 5 miles from Indiana and walk or ride my bicycle into the state at least once a week.) I joined the loud chorus of businesses, celebrities, comedians and everyday people who comment online in stating that this bill wasn't about religious freedom, but rather about legalizing and protecting discrimination.
Last week, Pence signed into law a measure to alleviate fears that the law would allow businesses to discriminate against gay people. The news will relieve the state's tourism industry and business community and probably disappoint the law's writers, but the debate won't end in Indiana because it's about something deeper than discrimination or even interpretation of sacred texts.
I recognize this debate as one about religion in the public sphere. By "public," I mean anything outside of your home or your house of worship. I don't mean government or government-funded structures.
Most Christians I know would say they take their beliefs with them wherever they go, that worship doesn't end in the sanctuary; it begins there. That worship means honoring God in their actions as well as their words, living their faith daily across their identities as churchgoers, parents, employers, employees, daughters, sons, spouses, friends, etc. They would say every Christian should try his or her best not to do anything to contradict that faith, ever. The fact that discrimination may contradict your faith or that your interpretation of your sacred text is debatable or even wrong is not the point; acting on whatever you believe is the point.
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So how do you then interact with the public when the public doesn't believe what you believe? Do you separate your identities as a Christian and a business owner the way we (sort of) separate church and state? If you really feel that serving everyone who asks you for service violates your beliefs, do you do it anyway in order to stay in business and obey the law and just ask for forgiveness later? Do you decide not to be in business at all? Do you let the government dictate that for you via its restrictions on your faith? You could actively seek out an interpretation of your text that tells you that what you're required to do as a business owner isn't wrong -- and you would find it -- but what if you don't want to? Remember, you're supposed to stand out. You're a peculiar people. You're in the world, not of it. But how apart from the rest of the world can living out your faith cause you to be?
Indiana's law, pre-addendum, and others like it potentially would allow people who believe their religion justifies them to violate anti-discrimination laws to build a separate community where they are "protected" from the portions of the public that don't share their beliefs.
The United States and many other countries have attempted segregation before. In the past, we've based this largely on race, nationality or ethnicity and have supported it with religion. As the Wake Forest Law Review pointed out: "The trial judge who upheld Virginia's anti-miscegenation statute in the 1967 case of Loving v. Virginia cited the fact that God had put the races on separate continents as proof 'that he did not intend for the races to mix.' " We now think these arguments ludicrous; God isn't racist, and using God to support segregation is using God as an excuse. Whether or not we now believe those people weren't "real" Christians is irrelevant; legal segregation did not work. It solidified white supremacy, buoyed internalized racism, and because they were excluded from education, business and housing, it limited African-Americans' ability to build wealth for generations, leading to the disparities we see today.
Apple CEO Tim Cook is right: This kind of legislation is dangerous. I think the easiest solution might be to require business owners who really want to be devout Christians to discriminate against sinners, no matter what the sin is. The loss of incoming cash would be catastrophic. But I would rather we have this debate, that we struggle through these messy, changing ideas about faith in the public sphere. It doesn't take long for us to figure out within our hearts, rather than through our wallets, which laws are and aren't ridiculous.
[Mariam Williams is a writer born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where she's received numerous arts awards. When not working in the field of social justice research and taking graduate courses in women and gender and Pan-African studies, she blogs at RedboneAfropuff.com. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]
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