Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Religious Freedom Act?

Every now and then a law is passed that is so insanely rediculous that it's hard to believe that someone actually had the nerve to propose it. The latest bit of insanity is called the "Religious Freedom Act". Yes, it sounds simple and harmless at face value but it is nothing more than the legislative equivalent of a wolf in sheep's clothing. 

I know what you're thinking because you've probably heard that this is some kind of anti-gay law, and if that is not particularly your cup of tea why should you care. Well, I said it before, and I'll say it again. If it starts there, where does it end?! Discrimination is all inclusive. There is no such thing as selective bigotry,. Those who hate blacks, hate gays, hate Asians, and anybody else who doesn't fit their ideal.

Is Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act the same as the federal version that became law two decades ago? Not really!

Is the law necessary in order to protect pastors from being forced into performing same-sex weddings?

Could it provide a legal rationale for Christian businesses to refuse service to gay people?

The problem with these questions is that the answers depend on whom you ask, especially among those most emotionally invested, but even within the legal community. And, now, with Gov. Mike Pence's announcement Saturday that he will seek further legislation to "clarify" the act, it could and undoubtedly will become even more complicated.

The argument over what Pence has signed becomes not only intellectual, but visceral, vitriolic, and ugly. Both sides stand firm, because each thinks the other is flatly wrong, in their hearts, and on the facts. And the debate rages on, sometimes spiraling to a place far away from the law itself.

All of which raises a larger question. Which really matters most: What the religious freedom law will actually legally enable; what people think it means; or what the intent is behind the law? I am of the opinion that the intent is really what matters. Because the intention provides the rational, right or wrong.

Indiana's new Religious Freedom Restoration Act,  might actually do little as a law when it goes into effect July 1, legal experts say. It simply sets a standard by which cases involving religious objections will be judged. However the indication does not seem so simple.

The religious freedom law says the government cannot intrude on a person's religious liberty unless it can prove a compelling interest in imposing that burden and do so in the least restrictive way. 

And, yes, that leaves room for interpretation. So what the law could actually accomplish, experts agree, will have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, probably in court. But the fact that there is ample room left for interpretation is quite dangerous. 

Until then, the debate fueled by fiery rhetoric that has galvanized both sides will remain in the court of public opinion. 


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