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Reaction Time: Religious Freedom Ridiculousness

Ariana Aboulafia |
April 16, 2015 | 10:00 a.m. PDT



One of the biggest news stories over the past few weeks has been the passage of Indiana’s, so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA).

This law purports to protect the free exercise of religion – as promised by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution – but many are accusing it of having dark, discriminatory ulterior motives. Many believe that Indiana’s RFRA law – and other laws like it – will be primarily used not to protect free exercise of prayer or worship, but rather to allow shops, restaurants and other public places to banish LGBT people from their places of business on the basis of “religious freedom” of the business-owners. 

In fact, it is likely instances where businesses were punished for refusing to serve gay customers – like when a Washington florist refused to provide flowers for a gay wedding and was subsequently accused of violating state law and fined over $2,000 – that sparked the creation of these laws in the first place. 

If you’re going to discriminate, you might as well be a proud bigot and take ownership of the fact that you don’t want to serve certain people – but, as I’ve previously stated about these laws, all that I think they do is fashion self-righteous bigots as religious martyrs and provide pre-packaged, catch-all justifications for something that people would be doing anyway. But, let’s be clear here: discrimination under the guise of religious freedom is still discrimination. Luckily, many individuals, organizations, and corporations have seen through the “religious freedom” excuse and condemned these bills as egregious examples of institutionalized discrimination, and have shown their displeasure via many different responses. 

For example, popular pro-equality organization Human Rights Campaign (HRC) launched “Open for All” and “No Hate in My State” campaigns in response to these laws, while companies like Gap, Twitter, Apple and Yelp made public statements of disapproval and dismay directed toward Indiana as a whole and Governor Mike Pence, in particular, who signed the bill into a law on March 26. Celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Charles Barkley, MC Hammer and Ellen Degeneres took to social media to express their disappointment with the bill as well, while perhaps most surprisingly, politicians in Washington, Connecticut, New York state and New York City, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Portland and more suspended publicly-funded travel to Indiana in a display of solidarity with the LGBT community.

While it is true that thousands of people refuse to be fooled by the religious rhetoric used in these so-called “freedom acts,” thousands more subscribe to the flawed logic of conservatives who staunchly stand by these bills, saying that they are necessary in order to protect primarily Christian shop owners from being “forced” to provide services to LGBT people (or, ostensibly, anyone else who goes against their religious beliefs – but, I doubt we will see these laws being used to refuse service to divorcees).

Regardless, many conservative politicians, including Gov. Pence, have steadfastly denied that there is any discriminatory intent behind these laws, stating that “Hoosiers don’t believe in discrimination” and, as such, the RFRA will not be used to discriminate against LGBT people. But, despite the fact that after significant pressure from Pence's constituents in Indiana and outside forces, Pence (reluctantly) agreed to sign legislation that “limits the damage” of the RFRA, the law still has the potential to cause significant harm to LGBT people in Indiana.

According to HRC, the corrective legislation only prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodation, and only in cities within Indiana that already have LGBT non-discrimination ordinances on the books. It still leaves LGBT Hoosiers in all cities open to discrimination in the areas of healthcare and education, and open to discrimination “of all kinds” in any Indiana city that does not specifically allot protections to its LGBT citizens. 

The more that politicians deny the potential of the RFRA (and various other bills that can be used to limit LGBT rights like those passed in Arkansas, Florida and many other states) to discriminate against LGBT people, the more evidence there is that this is exactly what these laws will do - and, exactly what they were written to do. For example, if these laws were truly not written to harm LGBT people, why would Mike Pence invite known anti-gay activists Micah Clark (an advocate of so-called "ex-gay therapy"), Curt Smith (who equates homosexuality with bestiality and adultery) and Eric Miller (who distributed a flier falsely claiming pastors would be jailed for preaching against homosexuality once same-sex marriage laws are passed) to be his guests during the signing of the RFRA? If that's not symbolic of the law's anti-gay intent, I don't know what is! 


Rick Santorum, another steadfast denier of the discriminatory impact of the RFRA and other bills like it, spoke on CBS's "Face the Nation" recently about the RFRA and went so far as to insinuate that it is actually LGBT people that are being intolerant of religious folk and not the other way around, because “tolerance is a two way street.” To illustrate this point, Santorum stated that gay couples asking florists or bakers to serve gay weddings is the same as forcing a gay man working at a print shop to make “God Hates Fags” signs. 

And here is more evidence that the RFRA will be used to justify LGBT discrimination: proponents can't even defend it without using a homophobic slur! Here's a hint for next time, Rick: when preaching tolerance, try not to use the word "fag," even for illustrative purposes. It kind of ruins the whole point you’re trying to make here, which isn’t even a very good point to begin with. Although your logic is appealing to anyone looking for an excuse for discriminatory behavior, it is inherently flawed – and here’s why.

There is a difference between refusing to sell a certain product and refusing to serve a certain person. Laws providing equal protection and preventing discrimination are meant to protect people, not products: there is no law that states that each bakery must sell all (or certain) types of cakes or all print shops must print all (or certain) types of fliers or signs. In fact, in the capitalist society that conservatives claim to love so deeply, the variation between products and the freedom to choose the store that sells the product you want to buy is one of the things that distinguishes our system from others and allows our economy to flourish. 

So, if a clothing store decides that they don’t want to sell flannel shirts, they don’t have to – and, if you want a flannel shirt, you need to buy it somewhere else. By choosing not to sell flannel shirts, that store has lost your business. But, it’s no big deal – you can always buy that flannel shirt somewhere else that does sell them. Isn’t America a great place?

When someone wants to buy a flannel shirt and encounters a store that does not sell them, they do not cry discrimination, hopefully because they realize that it is perfectly acceptable for a store to choose not to sell flannel shirts, even if that store chooses to sell other shirts with similar patterns, like stripes or checks. It is not discrimination to refuse to sell a certain product, regardless of whether or not you choose to sell similar products.

So, when a conservative hot-shot on a quest to make a flawed point called famous gay-friendly San Francisco bakery “Hot Cookie” asking for a cake that said “Gay marriage is wrong,” and they refused to sell it to him, this was not (as he claimed) a case of discrimination; rather, it was a case of a store that does not make cakes with anti marriage equality phrases on them (actually, they don’t sell cakes at all, they sell cookies, but that’s a story for another time). The argument that it is person and not product-based discrimination when a bakery refuses to make an anti-equality cake while they make other cakes is parallel to accusing the clothing store of discrimination because they sell other shirts, just not flannel ones. It is a choice that the owners of the bakery make, just as bakeries can choose to only sell vanilla or chocolate or strawberry cakes without it being discrimination – if you’re looking for another flavor, they lose your business, and that’s their choice. 

On the other hand, in the cases of the florists and bakers that have refused to serve gay weddings, it is not because of the product that the couples are looking for – there has been no evidence that these couples ever asked for flower bouquets tied with rainbow ribbons or cakes with pictures drawn in icing of two men sharing a kiss.

Rather, they asked for the exact same products that these vendors were happily supplying to heterosexuals, and were denied solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. 

That, friends, family and folks at home, is discrimination. It is discrimination against people – not products – based on sexual orientation; it is against state law in many states and it is arguably a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. So, refusing to print “God Hates Fags” on a sign from my print shop is not discriminatory, as long as I would consistently refuse to print it no matter who asked for it. Sorry Rick – looks like you’ll have to get your insulting sign somewhere else.  

Speaking of Rick, let’s tackle the other part of his statement now – that one about “tolerance” and how it’s a “two-way street.” First off, this statement is not nearly as logical as so many are touting it to be: it’s a cowardly attempt at appealing to the political masses by blaming the victim. But, when removed from the context of religious freedom bills, Rick’s statement does have a point – kind of. Minorities – of gender, sexual orientation, race, ability, etc. – can be discriminatory just as easily as straight, white, able-bodied men (hey, sounds like you Rick!), and pretending that there’s no such thing as a member of any minority group that has ever acted in a discriminatory manner to another person is ridiculous. 

Tolerance is more than a two-way street; it’s a one thousand-way street if it is done correctly – but, one thing tolerance most certainly is not is an excuse for discrimination. People that take issue with religious freedom bills do not do so because they believe, for example, that Christians should be forced to serve gays while gays are allowed to refuse service to Christians. That is what a one-way street of tolerance would look like, and no one I know is in favor of that – they just want gay and straight people to be able to buy things at the same places, just as civil rights activists wanted for both black and white people. 

In the United States, there are several series of seemingly-contradictory laws and practices that are consistently being precariously balanced so that they can coexist. For example, we value our right to not be searched, but give it up in the name of security each time we board an airplane. We relish our freedom of speech and the press, yet recognize its limitations and realize we will likely be punished for printing libelous remarks or yelling “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. Our freedoms are valued, and they are precious, but they are not absolute. In the balancing act between religious freedom and gay rights, eventually some robed judge is going to decide for us which is more important, and which will be slightly compromised in favor of the other. But, until then, let us not sully the phrase “religious freedom” any more by passing disingenuous laws in its name that amount to nothing more than institutionalized discrimination.


 Get more “Reaction Time”: common sense reactions to every-day craziness. Contact Columnist Ariana Aboulafia here; or follow her on Twitter



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