To understand the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which has passed the Arkansas Senate, you have to start with the 1990 United States Supreme Court decision Employment Division v. Smith. In Employment Division, the State of Oregon denied Smith benefits on the basis of his use of the drug, peyote. Smith established that his peyote use was a sincerely held Native American religious ritual, and he argued that, for Oregon to deny unemployment benefits on the basis of the exercise of his sincerely held religious belief, the state had to violate the Free Exercise Clause of the United States Constitution.
Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia wrote that “neutral laws of general applicability” do not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, even though such laws may cause the exercise of a sincerely held religious belief to trigger some adverse state action. In the mind of the majority, to suspend generally applicable laws solely on the basis of conscience would lead to a kind of anarchy:
The rule respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind — ranging from compulsory military service to the payment of taxes to health and safety regulation such as manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws, and traffic laws; to social welfare legislation such as minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws, and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races.
In response to Employment Division, states—mostly in the Republican states—have passed so-called Conscience Protection Laws, often titled “[Name of State] Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” And their language often seems innocuous. The operative language in Arkansas House Bill 1228 states as follows: “A state action shall not substantially burden a person’s right to exercise of religion, even if the substantial burden results from a rule of general applicability.”
Of course, don’t think the rush to pass these laws has anything to do with the desire to protect the use of peyote.
In almost every case, these laws are simply about people who want to refuse service to gay people. Weddings are big business for churches, and the thinking goes that their places of worship would certainly be “desecrated” if they opened their facilities to gays. Cake designers would feel the wrath of God if they made cake that might be used in a lesbian couple’s wedding. Apartment owners would no longer be able to “teach those gays a lesson” and perhaps convert them if they could no longer deny them a room. Bosses would be “enabling sin” if they could no longer fire their employees for those Facebook photos that clearly show an immoral lifestyle.
And these people are scared to death of anything that provides the finest sliver of protection for the rights of gay people. The folks of Eureka Springs, AR passed a city ordinance earlier this year that protects gays from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. And so Arkansas’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act is just one of many ways in which the Arkansas General Assembly has gone bonkers to make sure that cities like Eureka Springs can no longer do these things.
So let’s talk about that. If you listen to the people who come out strongly in favor of these conscience laws, you would have the impression that making life hard on gay people is the work of the Lord. That opposing these enemies of God is what we are here on Earth to do. That it’s right there in Scripture. That the Bible is so obviously saturated with this command that one need not refer to any specific verse.
I’m going to open the Bible.
Because you would be hard pressed to invent a more unbiblical idea than refusing service to sinners. Once you get past the cover of the Bible that these zealots so righteously point to, you get to a substance that could not be more ad odds with their ideas. Who did Jesus attack? People confident of their own righteousness. Who did Jesus spent time with? Who did Jesus defend? The woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, all of Matthew’s tax collector friends, the tax collector in the temple, Zachaeus . . .
“Oh, but they were repentant sinners.”
Was Judas a repentant sinner? Certainly not. But did Jesus not wash his feet just as did Peter?
And where do we find the Biblical example of not following laws because of conscience objections? You certainly don’t find it when Jesus told the Pharisees and Herodians to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”.
So, seriously, let’s quit peddling this freedom of conscience narrative like it’s the Narrow Way. Let’s call it like it is. We’ve been tricked since the rise in the 70s of Pat Robertson and Co. into believing that gays are going to take over this country and make our children gay. We’ve been tricked by power-hungry charlatans into believing that Christians are this persecuted minority. That we are just one law away from gas chambers.
Christians are not persecuted; Gays are. I’ve never been denied employment, housing, dignity, safety, security, benefits, or ANYTHING for being a Christian. Gays are denied all these things with regularity.
If we wanted to follow the narrow way, we would be advocates for them.
If we were concerned with what the Bible teaches, we might start with 1 Corinthians 5:12: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” If we were as concerned with their welfare as our own, we might just begin practicing Matthew 5:
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.