Friday, April 10, 2015

Laws On Religion Not Restoring Anything

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, April 10, 2015
By Bill Gouveia


            When it comes to the legislative proposals known as "Religious Freedom Restoration Acts" (RFRA's), I have to confess (no pun intended).  I just don't get it.


            Many might say that is exactly the problem.  But it seems to me these laws aren't restoring anything.  Instead, they seek to elevate religion to a status never envisioned by our founding fathers, who helped create something referred to as Separation of Church and State.


            Unless someone passed a law while I wasn't looking, America has no official national religion.  That was a big no-no back in the 18th century when people like John Adams and George Washington led a revolution inspired in part by the desire to throw off the yoke of religious persecution.


            Sure, you hear the term "Christian Nation" tossed around all the time by politicians and leaders of that faith to describe the United States.  But it is usually to advance their own agendas and organizations, reflect what they want in the country, and carries no official weight. 


            So the question is:  If we have always had the right to practice the religion of our choosing, why do we need to restore something we never lost?


            The legislators who pass these laws usually give answers centering around the alleged over-emphasis of individual rights versus the collective rights of society in general.  But that seems to be more of a concession to the increasingly conservative make-up of state legislatures early in this new century (not to mention their success at gerrymandering new conservative congressional districts).


            But if you look closely at this "religious freedom" movement, the real purpose of it becomes abundantly clear.  These laws aren't about giving people the right to practice their own beliefs as they choose.  Rather, they are about justifying attempts to force others to conform to their moral and religious standards.  They achieve this by disguising laws as attempts to defend themselves against attacks that simply do not exist.


            An example of this is the attitude of some organizations that supported the original version of the Indiana RFRA.  They were pleased because that now-changed statute had laid the groundwork for them to be able to discriminate against gay people.  While that was not the intent of all supporters, it was certainly the objective of many.  Just looking at the people present for the original signing makes that clear.


            Just what does it mean to be allowed to freely practice your religion?  Certainly it involves the right to believe in what you please.  Be it God, Allah, or some other supreme being - religious freedom means just that, right?


            But if that is true, why is it some religions seem more intent on creating laws allowing them to feel superior?


            Recruitment is an essential part of any organization, religious or otherwise.  If you have no members, you cannot serve your cause.  So getting people to join and share your beliefs is critical to any religion.


            But we cannot conform to all standards.  You cannot have both freedom of religion and conformity.  When my beliefs directly conflict with yours, there are going to be issues.  Some of those issues are going to involve the rules and laws of our society.


            We have the right to believe in religions that declare some lawful activities to be morally unacceptable.  Emotional topics such as gay marriage, contraception, and abortion have clearly highlighted that thorny problem.  Fighting for those beliefs in the legislative arena is both fair and necessary for all sides.


              But we don't get to use our beliefs as a reason to violate or subvert laws.  Religion should be about ending discrimination, not creating it.  There is an old saying often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, claiming "My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins".  It seems to apply these laws.


            Everyone has the right to try and change the world in ways they believe are for the better, both individually and collectively.  And religion often plays a major role in that.


            But there is a difference between being free to believe in something, and legislating the right to do so at the expense of those who disagree.


            We need changes, not laws that simply restate the obvious.


            Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official.  He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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