A national firestorm erupted after Governor Pence signed into law the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Indiana’s RFRA, supported by the Indiana Bishops, was modeled after the 1993 federal RFRA law and its counterparts that have been adopted in 19 other states. Without getting into the technicalities of the laws, they basically prevent the government from “substantially burdening” a person’s exercise of religion unless there is a “compelling government interest” and unless such restriction of religious freedom is “the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
The federal RFRA law has protected religious freedom, especially that of religious minorities, for over two decades. The federal and state RFRA laws have not been used as tools for discrimination. The RFRA laws, including the Indiana law, do not give people of faith a blank check to discriminate against anyone. In fact, they are meant to protect people against discrimination, in particular, people of faith whose rights to follow their deeply held religious beliefs are increasingly attacked today.
The anger that was expressed in the intense campaign against Indiana’s RFRA law was focused on the issue of discrimination against homosexuals. It is important to state from the start our Catholic teaching that opposes every sign of unjust discrimination against homosexual persons. Our Indiana Catholic Conference would have opposed the Indiana RFRA law if it would promote such discrimination.
I think the crux of the matter has to do with same-sex marriage. The Catholic Church and many other people of faith oppose the redefinition of marriage, not as discrimination against homosexual persons, but because of our belief, founded on reason and faith, that male-female complementarity is intrinsic to marriage. The very nature of marriage, as established by our Creator, is a union between one man and one woman. Should we not have the freedom to uphold this perennial teaching of the Church, a teaching affirmed throughout history and cultures, which has only recently been rejected by many in our society? Advocates for gay marriage are winning the debate as they frame the issue cleverly as “marriage equality,” rather than focusing on the deeper question of the nature and meaning of marriage.
The vocal and strident opponents of Indiana’s RFRA raise the issue of discrimination against homosexual persons. As I mentioned, RFRA is not a blank check for bigotry. There are other laws that protect people from discrimination. RFRA does not provide immunity to discrimination claims. But the real issue seems to me to be about same-sex marriage. Would Indiana’s RFRA, prior to the changes enacted after the national uproar, have allowed businesses and others to deny services for a same-sex wedding? Would this be justified? Should a business owner be compelled to be involved in a ceremony that he or she believes to be against the divine and natural law? I expect this will be an ongoing debate. Opposition to gay marriage is viewed by many as bigotry. Some have even lost their jobs for expressing opposition to gay marriage. Religious liberty has become subjugated to what some claim to be “civil rights.” But they seem to forget that religious freedom is a civil right.
Where does the Catholic Church stand? I think it is important to recall the important teaching of the Second Vatican Council in its Decree on Religious Liberty. It declares that “the human person has a right to religious freedom. Freedom of this kind means that all people should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within due limits, nobody is forced to act against his or her convictions nor is anyone to be restrained from acting in accordance with his or her convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in associations with others. The Council further declares that the right to religious freedom is based on the very dignity of the human person as known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom must be given such recognition in the constitutional order of society as will make it a civil right.” The Council further teaches that “the exercise of this right cannot be interfered with as long as the just requirements of public order are observed.”
The Church believes and teaches that the right to religious freedom is founded on the very dignity of the human person. It is not an “absolute” right in that there are “due limits” and “just requirements of public order.” It seems to me that the RFRA laws are in accord with this teaching of the Church. They seek to protect our religious liberty, while also allowing for exceptions when it comes to a “compelling government interest,” since the Church also speaks of “due limits.” The “common good” would be such a limit. How to apply all this to the present debate? It does not seem justifiable to me to compel believers in authentic marriage to seemingly condone “same-sex marriage” any more than it is justifiable for anyone to unjustly discriminate against persons with same-sex attraction. In other words, not cooperating with same-sex marriage is not unjust discrimination. Not respecting the genuine human rights of homosexual persons would be unjust discrimination.
I think we should be concerned about the changes made by our Indiana lawmakers to the state RFRA. Our legislators and governor were under intense pressure to make these changes. The attacks from opponents were unfair and relentless. The well-orchestrated opposition included not only LGBT activists, but also major corporations, and even the NCAA, threatening retaliation for enacting the law. The hastily enacted changes calmed the storm. I worry about the possible repercussions for religious liberty. Continued vigilance is needed.
I fear that there will be a continual erosion of religious liberty in our country. I think, for example, of the HHS mandate which is still being fought to defend our freedom not to cover abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization in our health care plans. I think also of the present attack on religious freedom in Washington, D.C. The Council of the District of Columbia recently passed the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act (RHNDA) and the Human Rights Amendment ACT (HRAA). RHNDA prohibits discrimination on the basis of “reproductive health decisions” even if those decisions conflict with the organization’s beliefs. For example, it does not allow religious and faith-based groups to ensure that their employees uphold their teachings. HRAA would repeal the “Armstrong Amendment,” which protected the freedom of religious schools not to fund or provide facilities to those who violate the schools’ beliefs about marriage and human sexuality. I don’t expect these attacks to end. That’s why we need RFRA, on both the federal and state levels. We must continue to strive to uphold and protect religious freedom, founded on the dignity of every human person.