It is tough to know what to make of the public response to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. On the one hand, we want to assume that the opponents of this law are acting in good faith and that they oppose this law because they genuinely believe that it could result in a rising tide of discrimination in the Hoosier State. On the other hand, this is obviously—really, obviously—an absurdly false characterization of what the law is meant to accomplish. As Gabriel Malor explained a few days ago, Indiana’s RFRA “can’t be used affirmatively to try and deprive others of the protections of law;” rather, the law will be cited as a religious-rights defense “against lawsuits or administrative action.”
This easily-obtainable and easy-to-understand information has not stopped the lies from being circulated—and make no mistake, they are lies, propagated by people who are invested in lies being taken seriously. The confusion has been widely disseminated; with all the lies being peddled, it is in a sense understandable why nearly everyone is freaking out about a run-of-the-mill ho-hum religious freedom law. Even Fox News couldn’t quite figure things out:
[S]tate lawmakers and Republican Gov. Mike Pence have been defending and trying to explain the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ever since the governor signed it into law on Thursday. They note that then-President Bill Clinton in 1993 signed similar federal legislation into law, and 19 other states also have similar policies.
However, the Indiana law differs in several ways, primarily in that it allows a business to assert a right to “the free exercise of religion.”
For practical purposes, of course, the term “business” in this case is interchangeable with the term “person.” Because businesses are run and embodied by people, affirming a “business’s” free exercise of religion is simply another way of affirming the business owner’s free exercise of religion. That is to say, a business owner’s right to practice his religion does not simply cease to exist because he runs a storefront. With that in mind, it’s patently ridiculous to claim that the Indiana law “differs” from the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act in this respect: the federal RFRA, after all, was just last year found to allow Hobby Lobby—a business—to freely exercise its religious beliefs in regards to contraception coverage. Indiana’s RFRA is in this regard neither outrageous nor novel; people are freaking out over the religious liberty guarantees in a state’s RFRA while the nationwide version pretty much guarantees the same thing. (As an aside, the exact term “free exercise of religion” appears nowhere in the bill itself; it’s a mystery as to why Fox News couched the phrase in quotes. The Atlantic did the same thing for similarly unknowable reasons.)
Everybody, it seems, is getting in on the hysteria. Virginia’s interminable governor Terry McAuliffe, for instance, has launched a campaign to “woo” Indiana businesses to come to the Old Dominion:
McAuliffe’s office issued an open letter to Indiana corporations Monday saying Virginia is a business-friendly state that does “not discriminate against our friends and neighbors…”
In his letter, McAuliffe touted his record of promoting equal rights and preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation.
This is pathetic and transparent and political and entirely dishonest. McAuliffe is governor of Virginia, remember, a state that has not only its own RFRA, but has the RFRA, the original number: Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom, passed in 1786, still part of the Virginia code, and upheld by the Virginia General Assembly as among “the natural rights of mankind.” This is a law that declares that no man “shall be enforced, restrained, molested or burthened, in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.” When it comes to religious freedom, you cannot get more revolutionary or more elemental than Jefferson’s excellent statute. McAuliffe, in other words, is clumsily trying to lure Indiana businesses to a state with a religious freedom law more sweeping and radical than Indiana‘s. Of all the things Indiana’s new law has done, it has served wonderfully to expose the ignorant and the uninformed among us.