INDIANAPOLIS — Ever since Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed into law a religious-liberty bill this past Thursday, Father David Mary and the Franciscan Brothers Minor have received an uptick in inquiries — and not about vocations.
The inquiries are about the claims, mostly made by homosexual-rights lobbyists and their supporters, that the bill unjustly targets homosexual persons.
“They’re mostly people who are concerned about this bill and think that it might lead to discrimination against homosexuals,” Father David Mary, the founder and superior of the order, told the Register of the handful of calls and emails he has received in the aftermath of Indiana passing its own version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The legislation is modeled after a federal law of the same name that prevents the government from “substantially burdening” a person’s free exercise of religion.
At first, the connection between a friary in Fort Wayne and the statehouse in Indianapolis might not be apparent. But the presence of Father David Mary and a number of his religious brothers and sisters at the private bill signing — a picture of which was subsequently tweeted by the governor’s office — has given the Franciscan an opportunity to explain his support for the legislation to individuals who aren’t sure what to make of it.
“I tell concerned people that this is not a law that is anti-homosexual, but a law that intends to protect people from government overreach into religious practice,” said Father David Mary, who had also testified before the Indiana Senate and House judiciary committees in support of the bill.
‘Falsehoods and Misrepresentations’
The confusion that Father David Mary has encountered is but a sampling of widespread misinformation concerning the bill. Critics of RFRA have successfully branded the law as “controversial,” despite the fact that it cleared both chambers of the state legislature with huge margins and is modeled after a national version that has been federal law since 1993. Nineteen other states have already passed laws that apply RFRA protections at the state and local level.
Opponents, such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a Washington-based homosexual-rights advocacy group, claim that the law will open the door for widespread denial of service to homosexuals, simply for their sexual orientation.
“[Indiana lawmakers] have basically said, as long as your religion tells you to, it’s okay to discriminate against people despite what the law says,” said HRC legal director Sarah Warbelow in a statement. “This new law hurts the reputation of Indiana and will have unacceptable implications for LGBT people and other minorities throughout the state.”
This interpretation has been picked up by the media and others. Stories on RFRA from CNN, The Huffington Post and several other media entities refer to the law as “anti-gay” in their headlines. A number of corporations and organizations, such as Yelp and the NCAA, which will be holding the final round of its men’s college basketball in Indianapolis this weekend, have criticized the bill as discriminatory, and some have threatened to take their business elsewhere. And celebrities — from pop star Miley Cyrus to NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley — have also expressed disdain for RFRA on the grounds that it targets homosexuals.
Presumptive 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, whose husband, Bill, signed the federal version of RFRA into law during his presidency, has also criticized the development. “Sad this new Indiana law can happen in America today,” she tweeted on March 26. “We shouldn’t discriminate against ppl bc of who they love #LGBT.”
But according to Kellie Fiedorek, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), this interpretation of RFRA is based on “falsehoods and misrepresentations.”
“The legislation neither provides a ‘license to discriminate,’ nor does it even mention anyone who identifies as gay or lesbian,” Fiedorek told the Register.
Why the Legislation Was Passed
Instead, Fiedorek argues that the Indiana law was necessary to make the same religious-liberty protections citizens of Indiana enjoy against federal government action applicable to state government action, as the federal RFRA law does not extend to this jurisdiction.
RFRA laws typically require the government to have a compelling reason in instances where a given policy butts up against an individual’s First Amendment rights to freedom of religion. Additionally, in applicable cases, the government must use the least burdensome means at its disposal to accomplish its goal. Having RFRA on the books gives the deeply held religious beliefs of individuals greater standing in court cases involving alleged violations of religious liberty.
Fiedorek says Indiana’s law is just like the federal law and just like the versions of RFRA that have been passed in 19 other states, including liberal-leaning Illinois and Connecticut. In response to critics who say Indiana’s RFRA will lead to legalized discrimination, Fiedorek says the application of RFRA laws over the past two decades proves otherwise.
“There have been no examples — both on the federal and state level — where RFRA has been successfully used to trump laws to protect human rights and public safety,” she said, noting that the same type of detractions being made against Indiana’s RFRA law were made during the passage of RFRA in other states. “But those abuses simply never materialized, because the state can justify a burden on religious freedom by showing a compelling state interest implemented by the least restrictive means possible.”
In other words, “This bill is not a trump card, but a balancing test,” she said.
Pence made similar points in a March 26 statement issued after he signed the bill.
“Today I signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because I support the freedom of religion for every Hoosier of every faith,” the governor stated, noting, “Today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action.”
Pence cited the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate — specifically noting that Indiana’s University of Notre Dame had filed suit against “provisions that required them to offer insurance coverage in violation of their religious views” — as an example of the current problems encountered by religious believers.
“This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it,” the Indiana governor insisted. “In fact, it does not even apply to disputes between private parties unless government action is involved.
“For more than 20 years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation’s anti-discrimination laws, and it will not in Indiana.”
So what explains the vociferous reaction of the homosexual-rights community against Indiana’s RFRA law?
Father David Mary says it’s less about the specifics of RFRA and more about a larger “battle for the culture.”
“I think this was set up as a stage to fight [for] the homosexual agenda,” said the Franciscan superior, who also works with the ecumenical Shepherds United to promote Christian teaching on life, marriage and religious liberty.
But when it comes to the businesses and corporations that have made a fuss over Indiana’s RFRA law, Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen sees a less ideological motive.
“It’s a form of cheap advertising, frankly,” said the Notre Dame political theorist, who has written previously about the connection between homosexual-rights advocates and corporate America.
Although Deneen praised Pence and the Indiana Legislature for courage in the face of considerable opposition from the business community, he noted that the denunciations from companies like SalesForce and Angie’s List are largely “symbolic,” a way to “demonstrate their alignment with fashionable causes.” He discounts the threats to boycott the state because of the bill’s passage.
“The same forces that drive these corporate entities to seek markets everywhere will ultimately make it far more likely that they will want to do business [in Indiana],” he explained, pointing out that many of the companies that decried RFRA as discriminatory “have no problem whatsoever doing business in places with actual and violent discrimination [against homosexuals as well as Christians] like China and the Middle East.”
Deneen also told the Register that corporations are no allies of traditional values, which he says are natural impediments to the type of rootless, relationship-free consumerism conducive to a globalized economic system. This consumerist mentality has penetrated the family and the household, he said, and has helped fuel the cultural shift on same-sex “marriage.”
“Marriage comes to be understood as just another consumer choice — and one that we can choose or discard at will,” he said. “This understanding has already been well-advanced by a divorce and abortion culture that was created by heterosexuals; we are simply sowing the harvest of this transformation and have ourselves to blame.”
The larger societal shift is why Father David Mary and his Franciscans decided to get involved in pushing for the RFRA law in Indiana.
“It was just a matter of looking at where the culture is going and the realization that the faith is under attack,” he said. “It’s only going to be a matter of time before that results in government overreach.”
The Franciscan superior, who has been a religious for nearly 30 years, shared an ominous personal revelation he says he experienced when the HHS contraceptive mandate was first unveiled.
“I had a vision of a storm on our shores rolling in, and it was going to get worse,” he recalld. “So to be part of the battle pushing that storm back and saying, ‘No, our religion needs to be protected’ was an honor.”
Father David Mary says it will be difficult for Catholics to make the case for religious liberty — especially when it is perceived to come at the expense of homosexual rights — without being labeled as “hateful.” He says this is due in part to the other side’s effectiveness in making that argument in the public square, but also because Catholics are not “speaking loud enough about how we value and respect our brothers and sisters who struggle with same-sex attraction.”
“They have dignity and worth before God,” he said. “We should be at their side, calling them to a life of chastity and to live the Catholic life with vigor.”
At the same time, Father David Mary said Catholics need to be firm that real love doesn’t mean compromising beliefs, a point he made during a long phone conversation with a young woman with same-sex attraction who called him on Friday over concerns about the RFRA bill.
“If you’re truly tolerant, you will be tolerant of our faith,” he recalls telling her. “You can’t force the Catholic Church to teach that the homosexual lifestyle is okay.”
Register correspondent Jonathan Liedl writes from Minnesota.