Let’s Talk About RFRA

Image via LA Times

Image via LA Times

Arkansas and Indiana are typically among the forgotten states that don’t usually receive a lot of media attention. But that’s not always the case. In fact, the “controversy” that came from the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts in the two states was one of the nation’s biggest stories last week. It sparked a lot of debate and discussion, and I think for good reason—this issue holds a lot of weight in our country’s government, so I think it should have a strong presence in the media.

But I have a few concerns.

I would venture to say that a great deal of the tensions drawn out of RFRA was rooted in misconceptions caused by the media. Major news outlets framed the story as divisive, and I saw more articles than I can count with the word “controversial” written right into the headline.

Instead of delivering the facts in a fair and balanced way, Americans were subjected to misleading language and poor representation from both sides of the issue. Of course, this led to people thinking they understood when they really didn’t, and pretty soon the entire nation was confused. When we take a closer look at what’s actually going on here, I think a lot of misunderstandings could have been avoided. Now that we’ve seen the commotion develop for a few days, let’s reflect, shall we?

I’m all about freedom of speech and letting our opinions be heard, but I think before we start speaking our minds, we should first be informed citizens. Reading the RFRA for yourself is a good idea, but interpreting its meaning can be difficult when the media takes certain aspects out of context. I recommend reading this article from the Washington Post. Here’s a simplified timeline, just so we’re all on the same page.

  • 1990: The Supreme Court granted Native Americans exemption from the prohibition of hallucinogenic drugs because they use peyote for sacramental purposes.
  • 1993: President Bill Clinton signed the federal RFRA in an incredibly close Senate vote of 97 to 3. It ensured that the federal law could not hinder religious practices.
  • 1997: The Supreme Court decided that the federal RFRA does not apply to individual states, but they were free to enact their own RFRA’s.
  • As of 2014, 19 states had enacted their own RFRA laws.

If so many other states already have RFRA written into their laws, what makes this case any different? We’ve never had this much controversy over any individual state RFRA, and the federal RFRA passed nearly unanimously.

Take a look at the mainstream news coverage of the federal RFRA in 1993, and compare it to the same outlet covering the same story today. Just notice how the language used in the second article politically leans to the left, and decide whether or not the sources interviewed were balanced.

As for Arkansas and Indiana, a lot of experts are saying that timing is the key factor in the criticism of Governors Mike Pence and Asa Hutchinson. Just last October, Indiana recognizes same-sex marriage as legal. Whether or not citizens were against that ruling, there hasn’t been much time for the dust to settle there.

Although neither RFRA initially stated anything about the LGBT community, the issue inevitable made its way to the headlines and “became symbolic as a fight over LGBT discrimination,” according to the Post:

But the symbolic fight has little to do with what actually happens when RFRA claims are raised in the courts. RFRA allows people to make the argument in court that a law shouldn’t apply to them because the both burdens their religious expression and there is not a less burdensome alternative. This is seen as good news for religious minorities whose religious beliefs are often in conflict with the law. Regulations on education of Amish children, prohibitions against head coverings at work, and other laws can be challenged if there is another way for the state to accomplish the same purpose.

Same-sex marriage is a sore subject for conservative Christians, so when the media portrayed this bill as a battle of religious liberty vs. gay rights, they were thrown into the center of the whole ordeal.

In my own home state, Governor Hutchinson received as much backlash as he did support. From the CEO of Walmart to his own son, there were a lot of unhappy Arkansans last week, and they publicly expressed their dissatisfaction, asking Hutchinson to veto the legislation.

“The issue has become divisive because our nation remains split on how to balance the diversity of our culture with the traditions and firmly held religious convictions,” the elder Hutchinson said. “It has divided families, and there is clearly a generational gap on this issue.”

Indiana’s governor did end up asking for revisions on the bill to include anti-discriminatory language, but Hutchinson did not. And I think that’s okay for a couple of reasons.

As long as they are not discriminating against an individual because of his or her race, gender, sexual orientation or beliefs, I think that Americans should stand up for what they believe in. If a local photographer, baker or florist doesn’t feel comfortable providing a service for a same-sex wedding because of their religious views, the government should not require them to do so.

Now, of course, that’s completely different from an individual walking into a bakery and having the owner throw him out because of his sexual orientation. That’s not okay.

There is definitely a way to compromise, and we see a good example of that play out successfully in Barronelle Stutzman, a florist from Washington state:

Because my relationship with Jesus Christ teaches me that marriage is between a man and a woman, I couldn’t do his flowers and create something that was special for him because it would dishonor Christ.

When Rob came in and told me he was getting married, and I told him the reason I couldn’t do his wedding…he asked me if I had any other florist that I could recommend, and I did recommend three because I knew they’d do a good job for him, and I knew he wanted something special. And we hugged each other and he left.

Christianity teaches that marriage is to be between one man and one woman, but Christianity also teaches to love your neighbor as yourself. Southerners (particularly conservative Christians) are known for speaking their minds and standing up for what they believe in. Sometimes it may lead to trouble, but Americans have that right, and it is necessary for us to value that freedom.


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