My grandfather, a conservative Republican, had a useful saying.
“If you’re going to do something, you ought to be able to look at if after you’ve done it. If you can’t look at it, you shouldn’t be doing it.”
I thought about Grandpa’s words as I listened to the debate in the Indiana House of Representatives regarding the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act – or RFRA. RFRA, which is galloping its way toward becoming law in the Republican-controlled Indiana General Assembly, would allow businesses to deny service to certain citizens – basically, gay citizens – if the owners think doing so would violate their religious principles.
RFRA has moved through the Indiana Senate. Thursday, the Indiana House of Representatives took up the measure on second reading, the last real chance to amend and debate the bill in any meaningful way.
The key moment came when Rep. John Bartlett, D-Indianapolis, offered an amendment that would require businesses who were going to refuse service to certain citizens to post signs saying that was what they were going to do.
In other words, Bartlett was asking RFRA’s supporters to follow Grandpa’s counsel and look at what they’d done after they’d done it.
Republicans reacted to Bartlett’s proposed amendment with horror. They protested that discrimination and oppression in this country are things of the past. We don’t do that anymore, they said.
Except, that is, when we want to enshrine the “right” to discriminate into law.Then we don’t want to look at it after we’ve done it.
I’m not going to pretend I have much sympathy for RFRA or the people who support it. Saying that you are doing something for reasons of faith doesn’t make it holy.
People have used religion to justify truly awful and, yes, ungodly practices for millennia.
Slaveholders trotted out biblical arguments to support owning – and abusing in every way possible – other human beings. Segregationists did the same to rationalize a system that denied African-Americans access to law, justice and anything resembling the rights of citizenship.
Should we have allowed the slave owner to keep his slaves if he said his “faith” dictated that he should do so?
How about the hard-core segregationists who turned high-pressure fire hoses on school-age protestors and murdered little girls in church bombings? Should we have let that slide if the perpetrators said they had “religious” reasons for their actions?
Outlandish, you say?
Well, consider the gay citizens who face physical threats and assaults on a daily basis in this country. Think about the kids in our schools who still are bullied for being gay – or just for being suspected of being gay.
Do we think making RFRA the law in Indiana is going to do anything to lighten their loads?
Do we think having the state say it is okay to treat a fellow citizen differently because of his or her sexual orientation is going to make Indiana a more just and fair-minded place?
We need to understand exactly how steep the slope is we’re standing on with this bill. The premise behind it is that our laws will be subordinate to an individual’s conscience. We only have to follow the laws with which we agree. The burden shifts to the state to prove it has a reason for asking us to follow the law.
Once we start rolling down that hill, who knows where we’ll stop. If following the law becomes a matter of personal choice based on one’s religious beliefs, then the idea of law itself is compromised.
I understand there are people out there who think homosexuality is a sin. I have a similar problem with people who would use God as a way to demean other human beings. But I don’t think the law should allow me to refuse them service in the public sphere. If I don’t want to interact with bigots, I can stay home.
We’re about to write into Indiana law the principle that it’s all right to treat some law-abiding citizens differently than we do other citizens.
But we don’t want to say that.
Grandpa was right.
If we’re going to do something, we ought to be able to look at it after we’ve done it.
And if we can’t look at it, we shouldn’t be doing it.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.