30 March 2015
Indiana: after legislation comes clarification
Gay rights activists didn't take Gov. Pence of Indiana at his word when he signed his state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law last week. The governor said then that he would not have signed the bill if he thought it would enable discrimination against anyone, but activists and secularists worried that the law's empowering of religious scruples as a defense against litigation would have shielded homophobes who tried to deny gays equal rights or benefits. A threat of boycotts loomed over the state, and in response the Republican majority in the legislature intends to enact a "clarification" that would amend the law to disqualify denials of service to gays (and presumably any group) from the religious-freedom defense. The governor says he will sign such a measure. The law will remain intact for what its supporters all along have considered its primary purpose: to shield businesses from litigation in state courts for refusing to subsidize abortion or birth control in their insurance packages. Following the Hobby Lobby precedent, Indiana says that women may have a right to abortion (for now) but they don't have a right to have abortions covered by their workplace insurance plans when their rights conflict with their employers' freedom of religion. It'll be interesting now to see whether the gay-rights community will declare victory and go home or whether they'll extend some empathy to others whose personal freedom is trumped unreasonably by "religious" scruples . Whatever happens, this episode exposes the absence of a women's movement for reproductive freedom with influence and power comparable to the gay-rights community. Maybe that's to be expected, since people are probably more comfortable supporting the right of two women to marry and raise children, for instance, than the right of any woman to abort a fetus, even if the latter right is more secure (at least for now) under the Constitution. Things look different from a more insistently secular perspective, or from any ground where the portrayal of moral scruples as "free exercise of religion" looks questionable. But I suppose that cat's been out of the bag ever since we let conscientious objectors sit out wars on religious grounds. The question for the 21st century is whether Hobby Lobby has put the principle of conscientious objection on a slippery slope and further hastened the decline of democracy in America. The grant of freedom to worship should not enable worshipers to say no to the state whenever they please. They can protest laws as they please when laws appear to contradict their values, but they should not be able to veto them, and denying them that prerogative should not be seen as compromising their freedom of worship. Given the way some people fret over a "militant" and presumably widespread atheist movement, you'd think someone could get some critical mass behind a movement for what might be called First Amendment minimalism regarding the free exercise of religion, or for the principle that religious freedom doesn't trump personal freedom. But if Indiana's impending clarification ends the controversy over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, then don't hold your breath for anything more from the secular side.