Sasso: Reject ‘religious freedom’ legislation

(March 22, 2015)

As we anticipate the festival of Passover, we recall the Exodus narrative and the crossing of the sea that has inspired generations in their struggle for freedom. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) before our legislature seeks to define freedom in ways that counter that ancient story, rather than advance it.

The bill seeks to exempt individuals, including businesses and corporations, from any state statute that “substantially burdens” their religious freedom. The government would then have to prove that there is a compelling reason to require that burden. In practicality, it means that business owners can refuse services or the selling of products to those who engage in legal practices that the proprietors deem contrary to their religious beliefs, for example, the celebration of a gay marriage.

Some say that the RFRA is needed to protect people who strictly interpret the Bible because those individuals don’t want to bend their religious beliefs. By the same token, however, other people of faith who also take the Bible seriously, hold strongly to religious principles that teach that discrimination is wrong, that each person is created in the divine image and that God is big enough to include us all. Our faith requires us to love our neighbors regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. Love is not an abstract feeling; it is practiced in acts of justice.

Under current law, churches, synagogues and mosques have the freedom to rent facilities and offer services in keeping with their beliefs and practices. Their clergy have the discretion to decide which marriages to perform. This bill focuses solely on the public sphere, where businesses and corporations should be expected to serve all consumers equally.

Business owners do not inspect the moral life of their clients. Those clients may be adulterers, liars, thieves or people who take God’s name in vain, actions prohibited by the Ten Commandments. Still no vendor, despite strongly held beliefs, refuses to serve them. Let us not forget that those companies seeking an exemption from the obligation to serve the LGBT community, themselves benefit from the taxes that LGBT individuals and couples provide to ensure paved streets and police and fire protection for their property.

This legislation is dangerously ambiguous. It leaves it to the courts to decide what a sincerely held religious belief is and what a compelling state interest is. Does a man’s belief that he may attribute, albeit erroneously, to the Bible allow him to beat his wife? Can a pharmacist who does not believe in birth control, be allowed to refuse to sell it to a client?

When does putting one person’s individual rights over another’s end? Will proprietors be able to refuse service to people of a different religion, race gender or national origin? Those who support RFRA claim that the courts will rule in favor of these freedoms again. What are the consequences if public funds and court time are spent revisiting those long fought battles?

Common sense and good will should lead to the defeat of this bill. Should these not prevail, let us hope that our governor will exercise the wisdom to veto to it, as has his colleague in Arizona.

We crossed the sea to freedom once; let’s not have to do it again.

Sasso is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University.