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Indiana’s RFRA Really Is That Bad

Indiana’s RFRA Really Is That Bad

Lawmakers in Indiana have a real mess on there hands. Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act has resulted in a cacophony of protests, not just from radical groups, but from companies like Anthem, American Airlines, Wells Fargo, Eli Lilly Levi’s and Walmart. Indiana’s governor and state legislators have been hard-pressed to respond to the criticisms, but they’ve been helped by hazy statements in the media that the Indiana law is essentially, more-or less, kinda the same as the Federal RFRA law and similar laws in the other nineteen states with their own RFRA’s.

It’s not true. Indiana’s law is unique, and uniquely dangerous. Indiana’s law makes it the only state in the country where individuals and corporations can refuse service to gays and lesbians (or others), because religious belief immunizes them from both civil and criminal penalties.

First, let’s dispense with the claims that Indiana’s law is the same as the Federal RFRA – which, apologists point out, was signed by no less a liberal icon than Bill Clinton. The Federal RFRA — 42 U.S. Code 2000bb, was specifically enacted to fix a problem arising from a holding by US Supreme Court that “virtually eliminated the requirement that the government justify burdens on religious exercise imposed by laws neutral toward religion”. It’s purpose, explicit in the statute itself, was to “provide a claim or defense to persons whose religious exercise is substantially burdened by government.” The law is also explicit that it applies in cases “against the government.”  (In Gonzales v. Centro Espirita Beneficent Uniao do Vegetal, (2006) for example, the US Supreme Court found that RFRA protected member’s of a church using a sacramental tea containing a controlled substance from prosecution under federal drug laws.)

In contrast, Indiana’s RFRA explicitly applies to disputes between private citizens. As Brian Bosma, Indiana’s Speaker of the House, and Senate Pro Tem David Long admitted on April 1, the law allows a business owner to place a “No Gays Allowed” sign in the front window. While the focus has been on the anti-LGBT effects of the law, the law would also allow discrimination against people who have been divorced, or women the shopkeep believes have had an abortion, to provide just two examples.

These concerns aren’t hypothetical. Kevin O’Connor, owner of Memories Pizzeria in Walkerton, Indiana, recently told a local news crew that he would refuse to provide pies for a same-sex marriage celebration. Asked about other events he’d refuse, he mentioned that he was against abortion, and said he wasn’t certain what he’d do if asked to provide services for weddings involving a divorced bride or groom.

(As an aside, the First Church of Cannabis was formed in Indiana within days of the RFRA’s enactment.)

If protests against the expansion of RFRA to include disputes between private individuals seem familiar, it’s because the same thing happened when Arizona lawmakers tried to amend the state’s RFRA to apply to disputes between individuals. Governor Jan Brewer eventually vetoed the bill primarily because of a flood of protests similar to those now leveled against Indiana.

To make things worse, the expansion of the Indiana law explicitly applies to corporations as well as individuals, and is not limited (as was the Hobby Lobby decision) to closely-held or family owned corporations.

Indiana can expect a torrent of law suits if it leaves the bill in place. I don’t know how much cash is in the state’s coffers, or whether it’s court system is already overburdened, but I’d be willing to bet the added expense and workload won’t be welcome — especially with decreased revenue from corporations that choose to avoid the state rather than subject employees to the threat of discrimination, from cancelled conventions and sports events, and the unavoidable reduction in tourist trade.

Face it Indiana. You’re RFRA isn’t just offensive — it’s bad business. Cut your losses and dump the statute so all of us can move on.

So long, Mr. Vonnegut

The title of this blog, The Free Lance” is the name H.L. Menken used for a column of his; my son Samuel is named for Sam Clemens; and, I saw Spalding Gray four times in the six years before he died. These are my bona fides for writing about the loss I feel on the death of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

It’s not that I anticipated reading lots more from him, but there was something pleasant about knowing he was alive, still smoking filterless Pall Malls and undoubtedly bitching at someone about something. (He once described smoking as “a fairly sure, fairly honorable form of suicide.)
I first read Vonnegut as a teenager, as I suspect lots of others did. I read the wonderfully funny and sad Slaughterhouse Five, Or, The Children’s Crusade, at the suggestion of a favorite high school teacher. I loved it most for the odd way it mixed the story of the bombing of Dresden (which Vonnegut lived through as a prisoner of war), with the tale of a man living happily with a starlet in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore. I’ve read Slaughterhouse Five a number of times since, listened to a really great audio version, read by Ethan Hawke, and if there was a copy right here now I’d probably pick it up and read it again right away.

Vonnegut was, in many ways, as engagingly contradictory as his novel about war and Tralfamadore. He was famously pessimistic, but with a humanist warmth that Twain lacked. For example, he wrote:

I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, ‘Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.’

A direct and palpable hit on the institution of love if there ever was one, but then there’s the grudging hope in a plea for common decency.

Another contradiction: He was a socialist, but wrote Harrison Bergeron, a short story with a barb aimed at the heart of the idea of absolute equality. The Wall St. Journal published Harrison Bergeron a few years ago in its editorial section; not the kind of place you’d expect an admirer of Eugene Debs to hang out. (You can read Harrison Bergeron here.)

Over the past few years, Vonnegut became embittered about the direction the Bush administration was leading America. Once during an interview, he said he was going to sue Brown & Williamson, manufacturers of Pall Malls, because: “they promised to kill me. Instead, their cigarettes didn’t work. Now I’m forced to suffer leaders with names like Bush and Dick and, up until recently, ‘Colon'” But then in May of 2004 he wrote “Cold Turkey,” a diatribe about the follies of human beings generally and the US under President Bush specifically. In the middle of this bleak prognosis for mankind, he wrote about the inspiration of Confucius, Eugene Debs, Jesus, and of Vonnegut’s own his son, who, asked “what life is all about”, responded: “Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

So that’s my short tribute to Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who lived through the horrors of the bombing of Dresden, but still retained enough hope to rant pessimistically about a 21st century America, somewhat older, but not a whit wiser. Just one more favorite story…

Death was a subject Vonnegut wrote about a lot in that characteristically unimpressed way he had. In Breakfast of Champions, he described a short story written by one of his characters as:

..a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.

Typically Vonnegut, it’s not a very pleasant view of life or death. But then, right there at the end, there’s that champagne.

This Just In

In case you haven’t heard the really big news: Anna Nicole Smith died on February 8, 2007.

Of course you probably have heard all about it. A quick Google news search of her name and the word “died” indicate over 3,000 hits at this time, 8 p.m. Eastern, Feb. 9.

In other news, 33 Americans were killed in Iraq, 50 wounded as of this month. It’s not possible to find numbers of Iraqi dead in the first 8 days of February, but a quick news review indicates at least 50 reported deaths just yesterday alone. No one seems to collect information on Iraqi wounded.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a passion for celebrity news, but I do worry when we’ve reached the point when the death of a someone like Ms. Smith is front page excitement while the number of US dead and injured in Iraq is, well, let’s say, not front page. I don’t think people are small-minded. But I get afraid that thinking about numbers of dead and wounded becomes so difficult to face on a daily basis that we build up psychic scare tissue, we let the numbers pass before ours eyes like a partial score of a game that’s gone on too long in a sport we never cared for anyway. But if we don’t pay attention nothing will change for the better.

In 2004, during the worst of the siege of Fallujah, someone asked Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmit about the images of death appearing daily on Iraqi TV. He replied: “My advice is to change the channel.” Cynical, inhumane, a disappointment for those of us who believe our military leadership requires ethics; nonetheless, his statement is based on a bitter truth about people, and bread, and circuses.

I’m guilty, I admit it. So I’m going to try to be aware of people behind the numbers, and think about the men and women lost or grievously injured, and about the futility of those losses and my place in all this. And only then will I turn the page, click the link or change the channel. As T.S. Eliot pointed out, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

Anna Nicole Smith is dead. I wonder if Paris will be at the funeral.