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Undermining Social Justice

Undermining Social Justice

On April 1, 2015, in an effort to restore religious freedom to those who “feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action,” the governor of Indiana, Mike Pence, instituted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in Indiana. The Act didn’t explicitly deny rights to members of the LGBTQ community, but it might as well have. Even after removing the most explicitly discriminatory parts of the bill, the bill still reads as the following: 

The religious freedom restoration act provides that a state or local government action may not substantially burden a person’s right to the exercise of religion unless it is demonstrated that applying the burden to the person’s exercise of religion is: (1) essential to further a compelling governmental interest; and (2) the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling governmental interest.

The wording of the bill is used as a sly means to justify the denial of LGBTQ rights and to promote the ideal radically conservative mindset. Similar to the Jim Crow laws which followed the manifesto of “separate but equal” starting in 1890, the new Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) justifies the same deplorable treatment of the LGBTQ community. Instead of promoting the pursuit of increasing diversity and social acceptance, the imposition of this new Act impedes social liberties and hinders the progress of the 21st century’s social justice movement. With all this new controversy added to the social justice sphere, we must consider why this Act was implemented and how the leaders of both Indiana and Arkansas (which passed a similar bill) expect this act to benefit the community. 

In his editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Governor Pence attributes the reasons behind his controversial actions to the United States’ and Indiana’s constitutions’ strong recognition of freedom of religion, concluding that the act is overdue in Indiana. Governor Pence believes that since several states and the federal government itself has passed such laws, Indiana has as much of a right to do so as well. However, the consequences of the new Indiana RFRA act negatively outweigh its benefits and therefore should not be considered in the same light as the laws to which he refers.

The federal court’s first ruling to implement a Religious Freedom Restoration Act came in 1993 after it was agreed that the free exercise clause could not defend general laws if the law infringed upon a person’s religious liberty [Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith]. Later, in 2014, the Supreme Court used the RFRA to rule in Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby that for-profit corporations are exempt from a law its owners religiously object to if there is a less restrictive means to furthering the law’s interest. Furthermore, according to Governor Pence, “over 19 states have passed such laws [like RFRA] and 11 state courts have interpreted the law to provide a heightened standard for reviewing government action”. Though the government’s intention is not to curb religious beliefs, but rather spread and accept progressive thought for LGBTQ rights, some still feel that the government is violating their First Amendment rights. Stanford Law professor Michael McConnell suggests that people whose religious freedom might be restricted as a consequence of the job they are paid to do should be allowed to refuse service in an effort to protect their religious rights: 

"For example, I would think a Jewish wedding singer could legitimately refuse to sing in a church wedding.... For a photographer or other artist to refuse to apply her creative gift to a same-sex marriage ceremony is much the same. I cannot understand why any civil libertarian would want to force someone to participate in a ceremony they do not approve of.”

As a supporter of one’s rights to put their religious beliefs above the law, Governor Pence crafted the Indiana RFRA to protect those whose religious beliefs have been attacked by the government and looked upon negatively by the media. 

However, though Mr. Pence claims that he had no intention to restrict the rights of the LGBTQ community, the wording of the Indiana RFRA gives its citizens the ability to openly discriminate against other members of the community. For example, Memories Pizzeria in Indiana was forced to close down for a week after the owners openly supported the controversial law and refused to service a gay couples’ wedding. The pizzeria recently received over $842,000 in less than 48 hours and opened to a full house the next morning. The pizzeria’s actions are a prime example of how this new Act allows people to freely discriminate against others based on sexual orientation. 

Each day this act is allowed to stand marks another day when discrimination is upheld by the law. Though the United States as a nation has tried to make steps forward to prevent discrimination, its states and citizens aren’t united in this cause. The passage of this act just adds to the numerous social problems we are faced with today. Instead of championing the acceptance of all people regardless of race, color, and sexual orientation, we are undermining the incredible feats made by social justice activism in the last few decades. 

- Rohan Shah