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Religious Tolerance logo

State "religious freedom to discriminate" laws

Part 1: New state Religious Freedom Restoration
(RFRAs) grant company owners the "religious
freedom to discriminate
" against their customers.

2015-MAR: The RFRA act in Indiana is signed into
law. It is examined in detail as one example.

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The term "LGBT" refers to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/Transsexual community.

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2015-MAR-26: The scope of the new law and its effects:

Eric Rosenbaum, writing for CNBC, said:

"Indiana Governor Mike Pence has signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act despite fierce opposition by business leaders within the state.

The law, signed Thursday [MAR-26], allows businesses to use an owner's faith as a reason to refuse service to customers, including same-sex married [or engaged] couples. The risks from the act range from potential workplace lawsuits on religious grounds to a broader and deeper business chill in the state, with money-making conferences and major corporations threatening to pull out, difficulty attracting key job creators like tech companies, and a wide-ranging ripple effect on small-business owners." 1

These laws are commonly referred to by their acronym: "RFRA" -- pronounced "riff-ra"]

There is a great deal of confusion over this law, and similar laws in other states:

  • One reason is that there are now two very different definitions of the terms "religious freedom" and "religious liberty" in use in the U.S.:

    • The traditional meaning relates to the freedom of religious belief, speech, writing, assembly, proselytizing, etc. This freedom is protected by the federal RFRA act and by some state RFRA acts, and mainly by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

    • There is also a new meaning of "religious freedom" which involves the religious freedom of individual believers to discriminate against, denigrate, and oppress others. This "freedom to discriminate" is protected and encouraged by many of the new state RFRA acts, including Indiana's.

  • The other reason for the confusion is because the state acts are being given the same name as the original 1993 federal law: the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act." It is also referred to as a RFRA law. However, the impact of many of the state RFRA laws is very different from that of the federal law, even though they have the same name:
  • The federal RFRA law prohibits the federal government from discriminating against individual believers on the basis of the latter's religious beliefs. That is:

    • The federal government is the potential oppressor;

    • The individual believer is the potential victim of oppression, and

    • The law protects the individual believer from the government.

  • The Indiana RFRA law is one of many similar bills being filed, debated, and sometimes passed and signed into law in various states. It enables and protects individual believers -- typically owners of retail outlets -- who want to exercise their religious beliefs by discriminating against their customers. Here, the intent of the state law is reversed from the federal law:

    • The individual believer/store owner is the potential oppressor who wants to discriminate against their customers.

    • The victims are most often members of the LGBT community.

    • The state RFRA law protects the store owner by guaranteeing their right to discriminate.

A more accurate name for these state laws would be "Religious Freedom to Discriminate Act" (RFDA), pronounced "riff-Da," with the emphasis on the "D." However, a universal rule in the naming of bills is that they always indicate a positive message.

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Generally overlooked in the debate over Indiana's RFRA bill, and similar bills in other states, is the religious ethic of reciprocity. In Judaism and Christianity, this is called the "Golden Rule." The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures require believers to treat others as the believer would wish to be treated by others. Similar passages appear in the sacred books of other large religions.

When believers open businesses to sell goods and services to the general public, the state RFRA law protects them if they want to discriminate against, denigrate, or oppress potential customers for religious reasons. Jesus is quoted in the famous "sheep and goats" section of Matthew 25 as predicting a very unpleasant eternal destiny for people who refuse to help others. Although the "Golden Rule" seems directly applicable here, few if any conservative religious groups have mentioned it in connection with the RFRA law.

On a positive note, some individual retail outlets ranging from florists to restaurants are directly criticizing the intent of Indiana's RFRA law. They are posting stickers on their store windows announcing that "this business serves everyone:"

"we don't discriminate" sign 1

RFRAs are mainly promoted by conservative religious groups. One result of these state RFRA laws will probably be a significant increase in the number of older teens and young adults who are leaving their churches, synagogues, mosques, etc. Interviews with young people who have left their faith have revealed that one of the main reasons for their exodus is the religious groups' rejection of the LGBT community. Modern-day teens and young adult are the first generation where most have a close friend or relative who is in the LGBT community. Thus they are more knowledgeable about the reality of sexual orientation.

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2015-MAR-27: The current situation in Indiana:

Brian Brown heads the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). The sole aim of this group is to prevent same-sex couples from being able to marry anywhere in the U.S. He distributed an email to NOM's mailing list saying:

"As we gear up for the March for Marriage on [2015] April-25 in Washington, DC, we can see that all around the country, people are rallying in defense of marriage..."

"... the marriage champions in the Hoosier state ... acted to defend marriage and religious liberty by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act this week by overwhelming majorities in the state House and Senate. [Indiana] Governor Pence [R] just signed the bill yesterday.

The new legislation protects individuals who wish to live their lives and run their businesses in keeping with their sincere and deeply held religious beliefs." 2

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Many religious and political liberals and human rights groups take an very different view of the same Indiana law. They view it as:

  • A law to protect public accommodations. These are typically "public accommodations:" for-profit companies that sell goods or services to the general public. The law allows the owners to discriminate against potential customers on the basis of the owner's religious beliefs.

  • An alternate description of these laws is "Religious freedom to violate the Golden Rule" statutes. The "Golden Rule" is the term normally given to the Christian ethic of reciprocity. All or essentially all large religions have similar rules. They require believers to treat other persons in the same way as believers would wish to be treated by others.

    Jesus is recorded in two places within the Gospels as requiring his followers to follow this rule:

    • Matthew 7:12: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets."

    • Luke 6:31: "And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." Luke 6:31. 3

In 2004, Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to allow same-sex couples to marry and thus attain marriage equality. Other states passed similar marriage equality laws. Between then and 2015, many wedding cake bakers, wedding photographers, wedding venue renters, etc. have refused -- because of their religious beliefs -- to supply goods and/or services to same-sex engaged couples for their upcoming weddings. To our knowledge, all of the company owners were conservative Protestants. About a dozen companies have run afoul of their city or state Human Rights laws which require for-profit companies to refrain from discriminating against potential customers on the basis of the latter's race, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Some state and city laws also include gender identity as a protected class.

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This topic continues in the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Eric Rosenbaum, "The business case against Indiana's religious faith," CNBC, 2015-MAR-26, at:
  2. Bob Brown, "Rallying for Marriage," Email from National Organization for Marriage, dated: 2015-MAR-27.
  3. From the King James Version.

Copyright © 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Posted: 2015-MAR-28
Latest update: 2015-MAR-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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