Opinion Pieces


Is Religious Freedom Fouling Out? April 2, 2015 by Richard Nelson

To say that something more important is happening in Indiana than the Final Four, may sound like heresy to the faithful congregants of the Big Blue Nation in this sacred week of NCAA tournaments.  But the uproar over the recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) threatens to drown out even the wildest cheers from Cats fans on Saturday.

We are told by LGBT advocates and their media allies, that the Indiana bill to protect religious liberty is discriminatory and unjust, and we should all be very concerned and very afraid.  Connecticut and Washington governors banned official state travel to the Hoosier state. Seattle and San Francisco mayors did the same for their cities. Coach Cal and the other three Final Four coaches signed a joint statement condemning discrimination of all forms. 
Discrimination you say?

In the purest sense of the word, each coach practices a high level of discrimination. Those too short, too slow, or incapable of putting the round ball through the hoop don’t make the cut. Before you cry foul, their peers in academic departments discriminate between honors students and those not making the grade. But when we talk about an individual’s moral conviction and freedom to live it out, whoa—call in the National Guard, because it’s a threat greater than the Fighting Irish’s near derailing of UK’s pilgrimage to their ninth national title.

If the underlying intent of RFRA is equivalent to Mike Krzyzewski officiating a UK game, then there’s a problem. However, the legislation, if anything, balances the scales toward individual rights rather than tipping them in anyone’s particular favor. That’s why Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer co-sponsored the federal RFRA, which forces the government to make a strong case before it infringes on someone’s religious liberty. The federal law was a response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made it easier for the government to win over an individual’s religious freedom claim. It passed by near unanimity by both Houses of Congress in 1993 and was signed by then President Bill Clinton.

Twenty states, including Kentucky, have RFRA laws on the books. Ten more, including Kentucky, have other RFRA-like protections through the courts.  According to University of Virginia Law Professor Douglas Laycock, RFRAs are about “churches feeding the homeless; sometimes the city or the neighbors object. They are about Muslim women wearing scarves or veils. They are about Amish buggies. They are about Sabbath observers. They are about church bells... And usually, the government wins. These laws have been under-enforced, not over-enforced.”

Unfortunately, the RFRA debate has devolved into a media referendum over whether people can make a moral judgment on human sexual relationships and whether people of goodwill who honestly disagree on moral issues can coexist without government coercion that violates their values. This has happened in part because religious freedom has been caricatured as code for bigotry. Consequently, conscious protection for religious belief in the public square is being swatted down like a blocked shot from Willie Cauley-Stein. Apparently we’ve excelled at defining tolerance down.

This sideshow over RFRA has detracted from serious discussion about what religious freedom means in civil society. Perhaps it is providential that this discussion is taking place on Holy Week, just before billions will celebrate the historical event where the greatest act of intolerance met the greatest act of love and changed the world.

True tolerance is a tough road to travel in a pluralistic society. But it’s the Emmaus Road each of us must walk in order for religious freedom to flourish.

This appeared in the April 13 edition of the Lexington Herald-Leader.



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