Utah’s model of Anti-Discrimination and Religious Rights

A recent law passed in Indiana has put the state in an unusual spotlight.  Proponents claim that their law uses essentially the same language as the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that passed with near unanimous support.  However, one thing Indiana has done that the federal statute did not is expand the reach of the religious protections to include private companies and cases where the government is not involved.  This has led some to claim that people can use religion to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

My sister recently sent me a link to a video and article in which a group went to a Muslim bakery and asked them to make a gay wedding cake.  On hidden camera, the bakers refused, and told the person that a nearby grocery store would be willing to provide them service.  The authors noted that this isn’t just a Christian issue.

My concern is that people can use religion to discriminate against others.  For example, an Evangelical could refuse to make a cake for a Mormon couple on the grounds that Mormonism is not a Christian church, and they only provide services to Christians.  Think this is far-fetched?  Well, Jana Reiss noted in a recent post that she had been scheduled to speak on the topic of “Sabbath-keeping and gratitude”, two seemingly comfortable topics between Mormons and Evangelicals, but they group canceled because they learned she was a Mormon.  Jana asked, “how could they not know from a two-second Google search that I am Mormon? It’s not like I’ve tried to be stealthy about my faith. I co-wrote Mormonism for Dummies, for heaven’s sake.”

I don’t think such discrimination is Christlike, and certainly doesn’t follow the Golden Rule.  My sister, in defense of the Muslim bakers mentioned above, came back with a political, rather than a spiritual argument, saying

“we certainly can’t force evangelicals to “assemble” with a Mormon. (Freedom of Assembly). I also think that we shouldn’t force Christians or Muslims to make a cake for someone if the reason for the cake violates their religious conscience. As he stated in the video, they were willing to sell them other goods, just not a wedding cake. If someone wanted him to write something vulgar, he should be able to refuse to do so, without legal retribution. So, though it’s annoying that the evangelicals cancelled the event because of a Mormon, it is within their constitutional rights to do so and no one is suing anyone over it or trying to put the Mormon or the Evangelicals out of business.”

But using religion to discriminate is certainly going to be put to the test.  As mentioned in this CNN article, “Bill Levin, founder of The First Church Of Cannabis, who argued on CNN that the law should protect his right to smoke pot.”  Of course smoking pot is illegal in Indiana, and the reason RFRA was established in 1993 was because some Native Americans sued because they were fired from their jobs for smoking the drug peyote during a religious ceremony.  Courts ruled against the Native Americans, arguing that religion wasn’t a good enough reason to smoke illegal drugs.  RFRA was passed to protect religious rights of people like these Native Americans, as well as Muslim prisoners who want to wear beards while incarcerated because beards are a religious issue to them.

The irony here is this:  “The federal law was written by two Democrats, Schumer and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. Today, it is being championed by Republicans.”  But Republicans are now split on the issue, and even Indiana Governor Pence is backpedaling, after initially defending the law.  “Caught off guard by the intensity of the criticism, Pence on Tuesday called on state lawmakers to amend the Indiana law by the end of the week to clarify that it does not discriminate against gays.  Conservative bloggers and religious conservatives across the country who last week praised Pence’s leadership on the issue lashed out at the governor for bowing to pressure.”

What is to be done to balance these issues?  Some are pointing to Utah as a solution!

University of Illinois law professor Robin Fretwell Wilson loves the approach taken by Utah and thinks it can be a model for other states.  Utah’s new law bans discrimination against gays and lesbians, while also providing exemptions for religious groups.

“The Christian ice cream shop is not going to turn away a gay couple,” he said. “A Christian car dealer is still going to sell cars to gay people. But baking a wedding cake, where you may have to take part in the ceremony or event, is something different.”

Is it?  Many think Utah’s law will be the subject of a discrimination lawsuit, but it is nice to hear that it is certainly an improvement over Indiana’s law.  Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, thinks that Utah’s approach is doomed to fail.

“I am afraid that there all kinds of unforeseen consequences for religious liberty,” he said. “I hope I am wrong.”

In an op-ed for USA Today, Boston University professor Stephen Prothero said.  “I support gay marriage,” he wrote. “I support anti-discrimination laws protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) citizens. But I also support religious liberty. These commitments sometimes conflict. But it is a sad day when there is so little support for the liberties of US citizens, especially among liberals who should be their staunchest defenders.”

How should religion handle these issues?  Someone on Facebook wrote “Jesus ate regularly with thieves and whores, and your telling me it’s against your religion to bake a cake for a gay person?”  When the person received some pushback, she said “All I’m saying is that I believe that Jesus would make the damn cake.”

What are your thoughts?

2 comments on “Utah’s model of Anti-Discrimination and Religious Rights

  1. Jesus might have made that cake, but not because he was forced to by the law.

  2. It’s funny that Mormons have no qualms with advocating certain moral laws (tobacco, alcohol), but on this issue, suddenly we do political, not moral arguments.

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