RFRA and Marriage Equality Table Conversations

RFRA and Marriage Equality Table Conversations

Led by Jane Henegar – ACLU Indiana and Tim Swarens – Indianapolis Star

The conversations all began with dismay that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was such a national and even international story in the spring. Participants bemoaned that the controversy was unnecessary, embarrassing, a PR disaster. They said it made Indiana look intolerant, backwards and behind the times. It made the General Assembly look even worse. It may have contributed to some people not wanting to move to such a close-minded state. The controversy went beyond what the law actually authorized, and in fact in all the shouting RFRA’s goal of protecting religious rights was lost.

Why was the issue so divisive? Issues of marriage and religion can be inherently polarizing, and lacking positive solutions, so they are hard to discuss civilly. One attendee pointed out that even though conversations about LGBT rights are hard, some are even harder, such as reproductive rights. When the conversation is framed as fundamental rights being constrained or abused, compromise is difficult.

Even in the table conversations, you could see the clashes that gripped Indiana in the spring re-emerge. For instance, one person expressed being uncomfortable with people being told by the government to do things they don’t want to do. It was said that businesses should be able to refuse whoever they want, and then suffer the consequences. That provoked disagreement, and several said that “open to the public” means “open to all,” and no discrimination whatsoever can be allowed. One participant said that allowing private businesses to discriminate against gay people will undermine progress in civil rights laws; another said in response that discrimination by race is not the same as with LGBT people.

Some thought that things might be better if misunderstandings were clarified:

  • There’s a difference between businesses being forced to do things they think are harmful (e.g. printing a poster containing hate speech) and businesses refusing to serve someone because of who she is
  • There is a difference between civil marriage (which should be open to all adults) and religious rites (which depend on the religion)
  • Some thought that Citizens United has defined corporate “personhood” in a way that confuses the idea of religious freedom

Many hope to discern some balance between the rights being claimed. Many conflicts and potential harms could be avoided through common decency.

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