Religious Freedom Laws Needed–and More Civility As Well

By Donald P. Shoemaker

Great political unity, left and right, religious and secular, led to passage of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993. President Clinton signed it into law after it passed Congress with only three no votes.

The law simply said that the government could not substantially burden one’s free exercise of religion even if the burden was caused by a rule of general applicability, unless the government could show the rule furthered a compelling state interest and did so in the least restrictive way.

Why was RFRA needed? Because of the widely criticized U.S. Supreme Court decision Smith v. Oregon in 1990. The court ruled that the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion didn’t extend to neutral laws of general application that happened to affect religious practices, only to laws directly targeting religious practices.

The RFRA was passed to counter this decision. But in 1997 the Supreme Court overturned RFRA’s application to state and local statutes. In response, 20 states with more to come have passed their own versions of RFRA to support religious liberty at state and local levels.

What has happened to take us from the unity of 1993 to the acrimony of today? Why the intense opposition to Indiana’s new law? I offer two opinions and three proposals toward civility (but no longer unity).

First, I have watched erosion of support for religious liberty along with a growing lack of understanding of how important religious beliefs are to their adherents. Religion isn’t just an add-on that can be easily shelved. It is a sense of the Ultimate that goes to the core of one’s identity and conduct. Consciences formed by religious faith should not be burdened by the state (to require what faith forbids, or to forbid what faith requires), except in rare circumstances.

Second, LGBT issues were not on the table when the original RFRA was passed. The interfacing of these issues with many traditional religious beliefs has not been gentle, to say the least. Both sides are wary of the other. And those with religious convictions contrary to same-sex marriage are now moved to prevent violation of their own consciences.

Now I have three proposals for navigating these troubled waters with civility. The first is a call for clarity. Have critics and proponents of Indiana’s RFRA taken the time to read it? To read dispassionate analyses? The acrimony of recent days has been long on harsh polemic and short on clarity.

The second is a call for conversation. Are we talking to the other side and learning what each side’s concerns and understandings are? Or are we convinced we already know all the facts and what motivates the other side? An anti-gay sign, “God is your enemy,” and a sign held up in Indiana saying, “God and Muhammad are not real — your hate is,” are conversation stoppers, not promoters of civil discourse.

I’m an evangelical Christian with deep concerns over freedom of conscience issues. I can articulate these. I can also listen to perceptions others have about religious domination and laws they see as promoting discrimination.

A call for candor is third. However religious freedom laws address discrimination, the fact is these laws provide a defense that says, “Not so fast! The free exercise of my faith is being burdened and you have hurdles you must achieve before it can be limited.” Proponents should acknowledge this.

Critics should not charge that RFRA is a blank check for wide discrimination by those who merely use religion as a veneer. Nor should they ignore the burdening of the free exercise of religion taking place, probably to a degree the nation’s founders never intended.

The need for restoration of religious freedom shouldn’t exist, but it does. Robust religious liberty is our heritage. It must flourish alongside disagreement, neither suppressing nor being suppressed by the other.

Donald P. Shoemaker is pastor emeritus of Grace Community Church of Seal Beach

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