Jesus Rides a Dinosaur: What We Talk About When We Talk About “Religious Freedom.”

My little church world is abuzz. This week, Indiana, where our Denominational General Headquarters has its offices, passed the latest in a rash of “Religious Freedom” bills to make their ways into the agendas of State Legislatures all over the United States.  From what I understand, while a number of these have been signed into law across the country, and present a number of legal and ethical challenges, the Indiana Bill, of those that have been passed, presents the most potential for legalized discrimination.  The denomination’s leadership, which had scheduled our General Assembly to be held in Indianapolis, is now working on re-locating the assembly.  It’s garnered us some national press, which–yeah–has helped magnify the buzz.

Proponents of these bills often insist that their passage is essential; they cite recent cases of conservative Christian bakers being sued for refusing to sell wedding cakes to same-sex couples because their objection to same sex marriage or homosexuality in general, and often present hypothetical situations that seem to be “liberal equivalents”: If you own a printing business, do you think you should be forced to make signs for Westboro Baptist Church or for a bunch of Skinheads?  Without this bill, the government will force you to.

(or you’ll be sued.  The threat is different, depending on who’s making the argument.)

Now, as someone who requested and ordered the most blasphemous Groom’s Cake ever (see below, and after you do, feel free to send my wife a message of sympathy.  She really doesn’t deserve the level of obnoxiousness I bring to our marriage), who values my own faith, who appreciates the interfaith and ecumenical encounters (including my non-religious friends and family here) I’ve had over the years, and who values the establishment and free exercise of religion clauses of the Constitution, I have to admit–these sort of arguments get my attention.

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But here’s the thing–I don’t think the debate is really about religious freedom.  In addition to the First Amendment, there’s been a long, evolving legal conversation about religious freedom in the United States.  It’s involved polygamy, peyote, the right to refuse medical treatment, and a host of other practices.  Between the constitution and case law, there is a firm foundation that protects the free exercise of religion.  The practice of religion is protected.  This doesn’t mean that there won’t be ongoing legal questions that our courts will have to deal with.

This Bill in Indiana?  This is a bill about opting out of citizenship.

We are not only individuals working for our own interests, concerned about our own rights, beliefs, and agendas.  We live, no matter the distance between our dwelling places, together. Whether we agree on one another’s choices, we elect officials together.  Whether we like the tax code or not, we pool our resources together to sustain an infrastructure and offer services from education to health care.  Through debate, legislation, and a judicial system, we decide on protections of and limitations on our free agency (Shouting about a fictitious fire in a crowded theater, setting fire to flags as a form of protest).  It’s the Social Compact that keeps us together, folks.  We give a little, give up a little, and gain a lot.

As I read the bill, two details really give me pause. Together, they seem to undo this delicate balance of self and society.  In section three of the bill,”exercise of religion”  is defined as “the practice or observance of religion,  includes a person’s ability to act or refuse to act in a manner that is substantially motivated by the person’s sincerely held religious belief, regardless of whether the religious belief is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief” (Emphasis mine).  Second, in a move that seems to follow Citizens United, section 4 defines “person” as “an individual, an association, a partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, a church, a religious institution, an estate, a trust, a foundation, or any other legal entity.”

Those two sections create an incredible amount of latitude, and seem to give credence to even the most vaguely-conceived objection to provide a service in the marketplace.  While I do understand that not everyone who claims religious membership conforms to every belief or practice (again, see the Jesus and Dinosaur cake), the low bar set for a “substantial motivation by a sincerely held religious belief” seems to include just about anything a person might claim.  Do your racial prejudices have, to you, a religious component?  Maybe you don’t have to serve the Iranian man who just entered your establishment.  Second, this wide-open definition of personhood sets up the potential for businesses, closely-held or publicly traded, to become segregated–among any sincerely held fault line an owner, a group of stockholders, or perhaps a “substantially motivated” employee names.  One person’s sincerely held value trumps another’s–perhaps a whole subgroup of people–value as a customer, citizen, and ultimately, as a person.  That’s not cool.  The Social compact breaks down in a wave of selfishness.

For me, as a person of faith, there’s an additional dimension to this discussion: what it means to be created in the image of God.  See, the Abrahamic traditions have held that love of people is inseparable from love of the Divine. Hospitality to strangers (And I don’t mean hospitality in the Martha Stewart sense.  I mean radical hospitality. That’s ACTUALLY what the story of Lot and Sodom is about–the choice to give strangers safe harbor in a dangerous place and time) and love of neighbor (Jesus quotes Leviticus on this and tells a parable or two, I hear) are core values and practices.  For all of the things that seem complicated or contradictory in the scriptures my tradition calls sacred, that’s pretty clear.  And make no mistake–this bill supports selfishness, not the generosity at the root of hospitality, care, and love.

So thanks, fellow Disciples.  This was the right move.  The faithful one.

Some of my blogging clergy colleagues, including IrreverinAaron Todd, Lara Blackwood Pickrel, Rick Lowery, and Bob Cornwall have some great stuff to say about this issue.  For the text of the letter sent by our Church Leadership to Governor Pence, follow this link.

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