Indiana has become the latest state to enact a so-called Religious Freedom Restoration law. Religious freedom is restored in these states, it seems, by requiring the courts to accept "freedom of religion" as a defense when someone gets sued for alleged faith-based violations of a plaintiff's presumed rights. The discussion of today's signing of the law by Gov. Mike Pence has been strangely disjointed. For critics, the real issue is gay rights. They fear that the new law will shield homophobes from accountability for discrimination against gay people or (and perhaps especially) gay couples. For supporters, the real issue is abortion. Pence justified his action by citing the Hobby Lobby case and other instances in which businesses or institutions faced legal action for refusing, on religious grounds, to subsidize abortion through their insurance plans. He noticed objections from homosexuals and their friends only to assert that "if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it." Nevertheless, the assumption that a "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" will empower homophobia has already provoked threats of boycotts against the state. I can't feel too bad about that because I feel bad enough about the way "freedom of religion" trumps the rights of individuals in our Land of the Free.
These "restoration" acts take freedom of religion beyond the scope the Framers meant to protect. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of worship and protects different denominations from having to support one "established" denomination with taxes. I don't think the free exercise of religion protected by the Constitution was understood to extend to acts of "conscience" in the public sphere, though many such acts would be covered under freedom of speech or assembly. As I've written before, I don't believe that moral objections to abortion or homosexuality are so essential to religious identity that submission to state endorsement of either would count as a violation of religious freedom. I doubt Christians would get very far even with their own kind if argued that you're not in good standing with Jesus if you don't oppose abortion and/or the gay agenda. Meanwhile, the whole "anti-Shari'a" movement, silly as it appears in its paranoia about Islam, accepts the premise that simple freedom of worship isn't violated if Muslims can't impose their morals on the larger society. While some secularists may object to state action favoring religion against individual liberty because they see such action as theocratic, my view is that people aren't entitled to the sort of legal shield the restoration acts provide because their homophobia or opposition to abortion -- add your controversy if you like -- should not be recognized as religious. The Constitution ought to be clear that religion is how you worship the divine, not how you judge your fellow citizens. If you challenge the rights conferred on individuals by government and you get sued for your trouble by individuals or the government, religion should be no excuse.