Under the Guise of “Religious Freedom”
As a child, my family used to drive from the Chicago suburbs to the Philadelphia area once or twice a year. In the winter, we would start out in the evening, after my father came home from his last day of teaching before winter break. I remember the drive by Gary, Indiana, and the huge smokestacks all lit up in the winter night, billowing and belching into the sky multi-colored gases. As I grew up, I learned that toxic fumes made up those earthly dragon-clouds and what had appeared beautiful was killing the planet. By then, the environmental movement and the Clean Air Act had brought about a massive reduction of the noxious fumes.
A number of years ago, I drove through Southern Indiana, far from Gary, going to an academic conference. I recall wooded areas, hills, early spring flowers. The loveliness surprised me somehow, although I can’t say why. I think it contrasted so sharply with my memories of Gary’s smog. I had left the Chicago suburbs at age 17, and while I still occasionally drove through Northern Indiana, I had little reason to see other parts of the state.
Don’t get me wrong, Northern Indiana has some natural beauty that I also have had occasion to appreciate, in particular the Indiana Dunes, along Lake Michigan. On the last trip I made through the area, almost ten years ago, Aviva and I stopped at the dunes in both Indiana and Michigan. An early snow flurry painted the dunes white as we walked along them one fine fall day.
Unfortunately, the recently signed, so-called “religious freedom” law tries to paint a less pleasant white-wash over the State, and returns Indiana to the days of spewing toxic waste, something that the Koch brothers might not mind, but certainly the rest of us would prefer to steer clear of.
The U.S. Constitution Establishment Clause already guarantees that the Federal government cannot burden people based on religion, and that clause historically includes restricting religion. Many of us believe that it also means that the government cannot require that citizens have a religion, although at least one recent right-wing Tea Party legislator has suggested that the government should require church attendance. I think she simply forgot to read the Constitution.
Article I of the Indiana Constitution, titled Bill of Rights, actually has six sections (2–7) that provide ample protections for religious freedom. Section 3, in particular, seems to address the reasons Governor Pence has put forward for signing the law (emphasis added):
No law shall, in any case whatever, control the free exercise and enjoyment of religious opinions, or interfere with the rights of conscience.
Case closed? Hardly. Pence continues to argue that Indiana requires a Religious Freedom Law. The sharp point: there is no reason for a law protecting individuals from State intrusion on their religious beliefs. The U.S. and Indiana Constitutions already guarantee those protections.
So what does this law do that the Constitutions don’t?
Here’s one item, from the law (emphasis added):
Sec. 5. As used in this chapter, “exercise of religion” includes any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.
What then does it mean to “exercise” a religion, if not to practice its system of belief? It is anything. If it is not compelled by or central to the system of religious belief, it doesn’t have to even be a religious belief, does it? This language is so broad that any act could be claimed as an “exercise of religion.”
Further, the law expands the definition of “person” just as broadly, but so have recent Supreme Court decisions. It makes it possible for corporations, groups, associations, and communities to refuse to follow State Law on religious grounds, and it gives those organizations the right to sue the State for undue burdens. What’s more, the law allows these corporate and association persons to defend their actions, even if the State is not involved.
A revealing clause of the law prevents lawsuits against employers, if workers want to claim burdens on the their freedom of religion (emphasis added):
Sec. 11. This chapter is not intended to, and shall not be construed or interpreted to, create a claim or private cause of action against any private employer by any applicant, employee, or former employee.
The KKK used to, and other racist groups still invoke white supremacy “Christian Identity” beliefs to justify their racism. Does this law mean racist associations could use a religious claim to defend against charges of hate crimes and discrimination—even if their interpretations of Christianity are not “central to” a Christian belief system (put your mouse cursor over the Christian Identity link above to get a taste of these beliefs)?
If an employer forces a worker to attend Christian prayer meetings and to join in the prayers, even though this would be a burden on a central principle of that worker’s own religion, could that worker sue for protection of religious freedom under this law?
And, closer to the real point of the law, does it mean that anti-LGBT organization and homophobic company-owners could discriminate against LGBT individuals? And even sue LGBT couples who legally marry (even in religious weddings) for “burdening” their ideological definitions of marriage just by being a married couple?
Yes and yes.
Beyond the homophobia, behind this law lurk some very dangerous forces pushing toward fascism. The same individuals [1, 2, 3] who currently express support for this legislation also want to gut environmental protections, to limit workers’ rights, and to privatize public services. The GOP-controlled Senate has attached an amendment to the budget to allow states to seize and sell off wilderness lands belonging to us, the people, for example. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker used his union opposition to demonstrate his future ability to stand up to terrorism.
These and other actions move the U.S. further toward a disturbing oligarchy of rich corporate interests using religion and new laws to promote their own power and wealth, while pushing working and middle class America deeper in thrall. And so, the political winds blowing through Indiana that brought this law into existence might well spread toxic gasses, literally and metaphorically, to the rest of us.
Unless citizens of the United States and around the world once rise up and take back the oligarchic, Corporate-Feudal colonies the States—and indeed the “developed” world—have morphed into in this dangerous political climate, the old Gary, Indiana, may be the new rest of the world, spewing smoke and toxicity everywhere. Stop this nonsense now. Don’t let this go on.
Update 31 March 20:50 Jerusalem Time
Update 02 April
Update 20 January, 2017
Yes, this is about Mike Pence, now sworn in as Vice President of the United States of America. In resisting Trump, we need to keep in mind who would replace him. After Pence, Paul Ryan. The whole Republican Regime must be resisted, to its roots.