Indiana’s RFRA Lessons


During Holy Week, 147 Christian students at a Kenyan university were slaughtered by Shabab militants from Somalia, who singled them out because of their faith. This kind of persecution is a serious crisis confronting the Church in the United States. As citizens of the most powerful nation in the world, we are rightly shamed by our failure to move our nation’s leaders to real action that will protect the lives of vulnerable religious minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere.

But there is another crisis brewing. And it is especially relevant for Catholics who live in a land that once reverenced the “first freedom” — religious liberty — and now seems to have forgotten why that was so.

In recent weeks, U.S. Catholic and Christian leaders were ambushed by a lightning attack against religious-freedom legislation in Indiana. Before the dust settled, the Hoosier State’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) had been changed and irretrievably weakened, some said, in order to placate critics who threatened to boycott the state. How did this happen, and what can we learn from this debacle?

On March 26, after Gov. Mike Pence signed the original law, modeled on the federal RFRA, homosexual-rights activists, the NCAA and business leaders continued to assert that the bill offered a “license to discriminate” against same-sex couples, and they prepared to green-light a boycott campaign that would harm the state’s reputation and economy. Pence struggled to shift the debate, but soon faltered.

Church leaders also failed to mount an effective and timely defense of the law. On April 1, many days after Pence had endured punishing attacks, the Indiana bishops issued a flat statement of support. It briefly noted Catholic teaching on religious freedom and respect for human dignity. Surprisingly, there were no radio or television interviews explaining the merits of the bill or engaging the public’s fears.

By Holy Thursday, Pence agreed to a “fix” approved by business and sports leaders, which some decried as undoing the legislation all together.

According to Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest group that has made the federal RFRA the basis of its legal argument against the Health and Human Services’ mandate, “The original RFRA would give people their day in court; the proposed ‘fix’ would be a green light for driving religious people out of business.”

How did the ambush against Indiana’s RFRA gain so much traction? Media outlets like The Huffington Post framed the bill as an attempt to shield discrimination against same-sex couples. Others spread the message, prompting thousands to protest the law at the Indiana State Capitol.

Meanwhile, advocates of the law were pressed to defend themselves from charges that they supported bigotry, and most had little chance to explain the bill’s merits.

Two lessons must  be learned: First, get organized, and don’t wait to get ambushed. Second, expect and prepare for intimidation as a political tactic — whether the threat is directed at your pocketbook (boycotts) or reputation (Twitter-fueled shaming of opponents).

“The lynch mob came for the brilliant mild-mannered techie Brendan Eich,” noted Robert George in an April post for First Things that referenced the resignation of the Mozilla CEO, following harsh criticism of his support for California’s Proposition 8 campaign that supported marriage as between a man and a woman.

“The lynch mob came for the owners of a local pizza shop, the O’Connor family,” George added, citing the Christian family in Indiana that received death threats and closed their doors after they told a TV reporter that they backed the RFRA bill and would not cater a wedding for a same-sex couple if asked. “And now it is not only approbation that is demanded, but active participation. And do you honestly think that we have now reached the endpoint of what will be demanded?” George asked.

If that seems far-fetched, consider that some have suggested that churches opposing “marriage equality” should lose their tax exemption.

In an April 3 column in The New York Times, Frank Bruni sketched out a post-Indiana framework that draws new lines for debate. Since Christians are free to ignore biblical teaching on marriage and homosexual relations, Bruni argued, they are bigots if they still cling to such beliefs. He approvingly quoted “Mitchell Gold, a … gay philanthropist,” who told Bruni “that church leaders must be made ‘to take homosexuality off the sin list.’”

Which brings us to another lesson from the Indiana RFRA battle: Advocates of religious freedom must present their case with the same passion, discipline and commitment as opponents. They should begin with a strong argument, like Little Rock Bishop Anthony Taylor’s well-crafted defense of Arkansas’ RFRA law, which has also been under fire.

“Choosing not to participate in certain ceremonies or activities due to religious convictions is not discrimination against the persons involved,” said Bishop Taylor. “Rather, it is very simply a choice to abstain from participating in conduct or actions that may be irreconcilable with one’s sincere religious beliefs, and it is the right to abstain from these actions which the Arkansas Religious Freedom Restoration Act seeks to protect.”

But the intense ground war in Indiana also shows that statements and press releases won’t be enough. With a blueprint for a messaging and social-media campaign in hand, advocates must be ready to venture into hostile territory and state their case.

“We have a political class that has somehow lost the conviction that the giving of reasons matters,” observed Hadley Arkes in his book Natural Rights & the Right to Choose, which bemoaned the reluctance of many pro-life politicians to effectively oppose abortion in the public square.

“A political class that is persistently reluctant to show that spirited nature will produce not merely a politics that is banal, but one that is denatured. In removing the conflict, or removing the argument, one may gently remove as well the moral substance.” 

During a time when arguments are won by stirring emotions, let’s tell the stories of men and women who have stood up for our first freedom with courage and love.

“Of course, some will say — indeed, some are saying — that the battle is over, the cause is lost,” noted George in his First Things article. “This is David against Goliath.

“But, then, we know how that contest ended, don’t we?”

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