Indiana’s Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed the state’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law on March 26. The law would permit businesses in Indiana to display “No gays allowed” signs. Proponents of the bill insist that it mirrors a federal act by the same name and has no discriminatory intent. But there are distinct differences between the two: Unlike the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which was created to protect religious minorities, Indiana’s bill allows private businesses to cite religious belief as a defense against accusations of discrimination from gays and lesbians. The controversy flared further over the weekend, generating business boycotts and huge protests across the state. On Tuesday, Pence asked the Republican-controlled state legislature to introduce a bill that clarifies the intent of the RFRA.
The furor over Indiana’s law underscores just how easily fringe groups can hijack any religion and insist that its practice requires discrimination against certain groups. The commandeering of faith by fringe elements, while not new, raises important questions about who gets to define faith in the public sphere and the responsibility of those who share a religion with such people but not their radical beliefs.
Indiana is far from alone. Even as the state was reconsidering the law, the Arkansas House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a similar “religious freedom” bill. While Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, under pressure from Walmart and other business interests in his state, has asked lawmakers “to either recall or amend” the legislation, the bill’s passage demonstrates the wide appeal of the campaign to use “religious freedom” arguments as a means to discriminate against LGBT people. At least 20 states have similar religious freedom laws. Unlike most of these states, however, Indiana lacks other civil rights legislation to protect the rights of gay and lesbian communities.
The religious freedom campaign is part of an effort by far-right Christian groups to define Christianity in the American public sphere. Spend some time surfing the website of the American Family Association of Indiana (AFAIN), one of the conservative groups behind the RFRA, and you would conclude that Christianity is inherently homophobic. AFAIN cites cases of judges being “forced to resign” because they will not perform same-sex marriages because of their Christian beliefs. Similarly, another proponent of the RFRA, Advance America, claims the bill is meant “to help protect churches, Christian businesses and individuals from those who want to punish them because of their biblical belief.” Pence’s call for new legislation that clarifies the RFRA’s intent may temporarily dilute the conservative victory. But given that he has said that adding civil rights protections for LGBT people is not on the agenda, it is difficult to see how any new legislation would definitively eliminate the possibility of discrimination against gay people.
Over the last few days, many Christians have been asked to speak out against Indiana’s law. As an American Muslim, I am used to the demand to denounce and decry distortions of religion every time some radical group discriminates against or kills innocent people in the name of my faith. After the tragic attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January, American Muslims faced the burden of proving that their faith was peaceful and denouncing the killings. Muslims the world over have been asked to declare that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is not Islamic and that they are not secret supporters.
The latest imposition of collective responsibility on individual Christians to prove that, unlike groups such as AFAIN and Advance America, their brand of Christianity does not require homophobia is part of the same sort of essentialist and misplaced argument. It is not the responsibility of ordinary American Muslims or Christians to condemn the acts of fringe groups that express themselves in myriad hateful ways. In fact, such a demand for apology validates the fringe groups’ claim to defining the meaning of faith in the public sphere. For both AFAIN and ISIL, this power amounts to the political and strategic victories they desire.
To be clear, the demands for American Muslims to denounce ISIL and the Charlie Hebdo killings were far louder and more accusatory than those imposed on American Christians in connection with the Indiana law. Few American Christians have been labeled secret supporters of homophobia for not joining the protests or publicly stating that being Christian does not, as AFAIN and other conservative groups claim, inherently require discriminating against gays and lesbians. Christians who do not believe that their faith requires such discrimination can now recognize the idiocy of demands on Muslims to denounce ISIL or other Islamist groups.
The task of confronting those who are bent on distorting Islam, Christianity or any other faith in order to hurt, harm and reject people on the basis of their race, religion or sexual orientation is a difficult one. But whether it is in Indiana, Arkansas, Syria or Iraq, the best way to counter such spiritually bankrupt ideologues is by exposing their singular political motives and manipulation of faith to amass power. Faith communities should use the debate sparked by Indiana’s law to recognize that while they do not worship the same God, they nevertheless face similar challenges.
The Indiana law underscores how fringe groups can mobilize resources, dominate the debate and help pass draconian and discriminatory laws in democratic countries. If the spirit of mutual understanding prevails, the outrage over the RFRA could mark a transformative moment to denounce the collective burdens of guilt and denunciation imposed on members of any and all faiths because of the machinations of a hateful few.