Abdul: Legislature should forget religious liberty bill

http://www.indystar.com/story/opinion/2015/01/17/abdul-legislature-forget-religious-liberty-bill/21941621/

Imagine that my lovely wife and I decide to try a new restaurant for dinner. However, as soon as we walk in, we’re told that we have to leave because we’re black.

Naturally, I do what any red-blooded American would do and exercise my God-given right to sue.

So we file a complaint, and after winding its way through the court system, it’s determined that the owner properly denied us service because he was covered under Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Yes, he was discriminating against us because we’re minorities, but since the owner is a member of the Christian Identity movement, which believes people who look like me are “Satan-spawned mud races,” he is acting within his religious rights to deny the Lovely Mrs. Shabazz and me service.

Sound crazy? Of course it does. But it’s also plausible if lawmakers aren’t careful in drafting the state’s version of the RFRA.

State Sen. Scott Schneider has told the media the legislation is necessary because people of faith need the law to protect them from being compelled to engage in commercial practices that compromise their religious beliefs. The classic example of this is the religious baker who feels he or she should not be compelled to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. Usually the baker doesn’t unless he or she is operating in a jurisdiction that has added sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination laws. And in exchange for the business license, that baker has agreed to follow the laws and rules of that municipality.

There are usually exceptions for religious employers (such as Catholic Charities), but not for employers who are religious. This is why the Christian Identity restaurateur is out of luck when my wife and I order some white fish.

Supporters of the RFRA say it’s needed to protect religious liberty. But religious freedom is tricky business.

For example, let’s say you have a devout Catholic who doesn’t want to rent hotel rooms to unmarried or divorced couples. The Muslim shopkeeper who takes Sharia customs to the extreme and says women cannot enter his store without a burka. Or the giant spaghetti monster followers who refuse to serve people who don’t believe in the giant spaghetti monster. You see where this is going.

Are some of these examples extreme? Well that’s in the eye of the beholder, or if the RFPA goes into effect, the judge or jury, because that’s where a lot of this stuff will end up.

Under the federal RFPA law, the government can’t do anything that places a “substantial burden” on someone who is exercising religious freedoms. But like most laws, there is an exception; the exception is that the government must show a compelling state interest as to why a rule that tramples religious freedom exists. This is where the judges, juries and lawyers come into play.

Someone has to make the call as to whether someone exercising religious beliefs is being genuine or simply using it as a pretext for discrimination. If you make 50 cakes a day, is making one more cake for a same-sex wedding really going to put a substantial burden on you?

I told you this was tricky business.

At the end of the day, lawmakers should leave this one alone. You never know what kind of Pandora’s box you will open. No offense to the followers of the Greek Pantheon.

Abdul is an attorney and the editor and publisher of IndyPolitics.Org. He can be reached at abdul@indypolitics.org.