I was keenly interested in the growing debate over a law passed in the state of Indiana that has been dubbed the “Freedom of Religion Law.” As a school student in the 1960s I was taught that was one of the reasons this country was founded, religious freedom. So why do we need a state law guaranteeing what every grade school student knows is the law.
It is stated very plainly in Amendment I: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment or religion, or prohibiting the free exercise of....” That is the same amendment that allows me to write this column without fear of government retribution.
Pretty clear isn’t it? So why did Indiana, Arkansas and other states feel the need to adopt a Freedom of Religion Law?
It is because the minority, fearing repression from the majority, has enforced its will on lawmakers who have written laws that violate the religious convictions of some to favor others. The result has been a loss of freedom for some. They have lost their right to choose which was guaranteed under that pesky First Amendment. By violating the rights of people practicing a religion, the lawmakers have taken a very perilous step.
If I ran a restaurant and I belonged to, say, the Church of Brookville, and my church believed we should wear nothing but orange Crocs on our feet, then I should be able to run my business as I see fit. Right? According to some folks I would be violating the civil rights of some customers if I refused to serve someone who came into my place and had pink Crocs on their tootsies.
Am I truly violating their rights? No, because they always have the option of taking their trade elsewhere. The government should not force me to serve someone who offends me.
I would not expect a Jewish deli to serve someone wearing a Nazi arm band or a soul food stand to serve anyone wearing a Klan robe.
There has to be some common sense applied.
The Indiana law, as originally written, allows businesses to refuse service to gay and lesbian couples. That clause set off a storm of criticism and may lead to a revision in the Indiana law.
So what about Pennsylvania? Businesses in Pennsylvania can refuse to make a cake or arrange flowers for a same-sex couple planning a wedding. There’s no state law saying they can, legal experts said. But to the satisfaction of some religious groups and the dismay of gay rights activists, there’s no law saying they can’t.
Pennsylvania’s law, passed in 2002 protects individuals, religious organizations and nonprofits from state and local laws that could interfere with or burden the practice of religion. Unlike Indiana’s law, Pennsylvania’s law does not extend to for-profit companies.
Pennsylvania’s law has worked. There have been only four cases based on the law: Two involving day care centers run out of churches, a noise complaint involving a church and a case dealing with religious freedom in prison. In each case, the religious group or individual involved lost.
Nondiscrimination ordinances have been adopted by Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Philadelphia but advocates say the gay and lesbian community is vulnerable elsewhere in Pennsylvania.
Catholics and some religious groups and their supporters in the Legislature contend existing law serves to prevent discrimination against gays in Pennsylvania while not imposing requirements that may violate others’ religious beliefs.
The problem with laws that seek to protect the rights of a specific segment of our population often trample the rights of another segment of the same population. The freedoms of one are often the bonds of another.