Why some religious leaders fear RFRA

Some minority faiths worry that Indiana’s religious freedom law may encourage discrimination.

IndyStar.com
By Stephanie Wang and Madeline Buckley
7/1/15

Was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ever supposed to be about same-sex marriage and marijuana?

The loud, polemic narrative around Indiana’s religious freedom law, which goes into effect Wednesday, has been dominated by deep-pocketed conservative Christians and one particularly charismatic pot evangelist.

But what about the Jewish man wanting to wear his yarmulke, who was cited in the original arguments for the state RFRA? What about the Amish buggy driver who eschews the flashiness of state-mandated safety markers? What about the Muslim prisoner and his banned beard?

RFRA protections, starting at the federal level, were conceived as a way to ensure that all religions could freely practice their beliefs and religious customs. Yet many who practice minority faiths now worry that Indiana’s new law might actually encourage discrimination against them.

In that regard, they find their interests aligned less with those who have most fervently supported Indiana’s law — evangelical Christians — and more so with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community that has feared discrimination rooted in others’ religious beliefs. That is so despite the strong objections by some of those religions, including Islam, to same-sex marriage.

“We look at it the other way,” said Shaker Rashid, imam of the Alhuda Foundation in Fishers. “What if a Muslim woman would go to a restaurant and order a meal, and a guy will approach and say, ‘I don’t feel comfortable serving Muslims?’

“I think with laws like this, you’re just opening a door for issues like that.”

Some religious groups in Indiana say they found ways to fit into the mainstream culture long before Indiana passed its RFRA this year, using many of the other laws that protect religious expression.

Indiana’s RFRA provides a strict legal test for courts that says the government cannot substantially burden the religious exercise of a person, business or religious organization unless it can prove it is pursuing the least restrictive means of upholding a compelling government interest. The “fix” adds that the law cannot supersede the state civil rights laws or be used to deny services, employment or housing to anyone.

Proponents of RFRA — who included Franciscan monks, nuns and orthodox Jews — said the law was vital for safeguarding religious liberty from government intrusion, and some argue that the fix denies religious rights when they conflict with same-sex marriages.

But critics contend that the fix, while upholding local nondiscrimination ordinances, does nothing to protect LGBT Hoosiers who live in cities where discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is not banned — and so a person could legally discriminate without needing to invoke religious rights.

“I, as a religious person who is in a minority religious group, can appreciate the effort to protect certain rights,” said Michael Saahir, imam of the Nur-Allah Islamic Center. But with RFRA, he added, “I could hear a voice of discrimination also there, and that put fear in me — that there was room for a person to hide, for discrimination in the name of religion.”

Still, under the RFRA “fix,” devout believers of any faith are afforded greater shielding than LGBT individuals, because religion is explicitly protected in state civil rights laws.

But some faith leaders said RFRA “raises question marks” and called it “murky,” “a slippery slope” and “unnecessary.”

“We would still have concerns on the overall discriminatory effect of the legislation when it comes to the minority communities,” said David Sklar, director of government affairs for the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council.

Jewish men wearing yarmulkes has been dealt with “through the protections already offered to us through constitutional and state law,” Sklar said. “We do not feel — and we continue not to feel — that RFRA offered us any extra protection.”

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Decades ago, the Amish in Northern Indiana and across the country secured special accommodations from several laws that clashed with their beliefs.

Amish children must attend school only through eighth grade, an agreement worked out with the Indiana superintendent of public instruction before the U.S. Supreme Court granted the exemption nationwide, said Steven Nolt, a Goshen College history professor.

The Amish are exempt from participating in and collecting Social Security and Medicare, because they believe the church is held accountable by God to provide for the physical needs of members. As pacifists, they conscientiously objected to being drafted to serve in World War II and the Cold War. Some Amish opt out of having their photographs taken for state-issued identification.

“These issues have generally been resolved in Indiana fairly amiably,” Nolt said. “The Amish have received exemptions they’ve tried to negotiate for.”

Ida Hochstetler, a 58-year-old Amish woman, remembered seeking religious exemptions so that her children didn’t need vaccinations when they attended Shipshewana public schools.

“We didn’t give them shots,” she said. “We always wrote a note about our religious beliefs.”

Cletus Lambright, who owns Lambright Woodworking outside Shipshewana, said he supports any law that protects religious freedom. But he also said the community didn’t seek out RFRA because he thinks there have been no major issues with government interference.

Still, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling overturning state bans on same-sex marriage, several Amish people say their communities are now mulling over the issue of gay rights, because same-sex marriage goes against their beliefs.

Islam also opposes same-sex marriages, as does orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Yisrael Gettinger, who testified in favor of RFRA, declined to comment for this story.

Rashid, of the Alhuda Foundation, gives three examples involving religion and marriage.

First, although Islam allows men to marry multiple wives, he does not perform such ceremonies because that practice is banned in the U.S. Multiple marriages, he noted, is not an obligation of the religion, nor does it affect the exercise of it.

Second, “As the imam, I will never be able to issue a marriage certificate for same-sex couples,” Rashid said. “It’s against Islamic belief, just the same as it is Christian. But the courthouse may be able to produce something like that.”

Third, asked whether a Muslim baker should have to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, Rashid said the baker should not be able to “pick and choose” whom to serve.

“It’s none of their business” what the cake is for, he said.

He does not see it as a creative service that endorses or is witness to a same-sex marriage. In fact, he said, denying a wedding cake to a same-sex couple goes against his belief that in Islam, “the general rule is you treat people equal.”

But would an Amish or a Muslim person being asked to cater a same-sex wedding be viewed the same way as a Christian business owner in a similar situation?

This is the question posed by Arthur Farnsley, associate director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

“It just doesn’t happen as much,” he said, hypothetically pitching the idea of a halal butcher requested to prepare meat for an LGBT wedding. “There’s some chance that would be viewed as a religious protection for a minority, whereas most people don’t view evangelical Christians as a minority who need protection.”

Christians are a much larger group, and if they gain protection from serving same-sex weddings, that’s likely to have a greater and broader effect, Farnsley said.

Although courts across the country have not yet sided with religious business owners who objected to catering same-sex weddings, it’s a question yet to be tested in Indiana.

“Courts really do ask that question: Does anyone really have the belief that pizza shouldn’t be served to LGBT people?” Farnsley said. “If I don’t like gay marriage, I’m not sure that gets me out of serving people pizza. It probably does stop my church from having to hold these events there. But the truth is, it was going to take a court case.”

He also pointed out that religion changes with societal norms — that no longer are there vocal religious dissenters to interracial marriages.

“Religious people will say, ‘No, our beliefs are always the same,’ but the context changes,” Farnsley said.

“At a certain point, when you get outside of what’s so clearly acceptable in society, society is going to stop granting you certain benefits, and accepted ways are going to change.”

(Call Star reporter Stephanie Wang at (317) 444-6184. Follow her on Twitter: @stephaniewang.)

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