By Christopher Corbett
My lunch companion briefly stopped eating and looked right at me. “Wow,” he said, “that’s not the way the media is spinning it!” He was referring to the new Arkansas religious freedom law. My friend, who is a missions director for a regional organization of churches, was pleasantly surprised to hear that the law was a victory for religious freedom rather than another compromise against religious liberty.
Yet it was a victory. On April 2, 2015, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed the 20th Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) at a state level that helps protect religious freedom for everyday Americans in their state.1 At first even the Progressives seemed satisfied that Arkansas had “fixed” their RFRA as Indiana had (in other words, destroyed it). But then reality sank in: Arkansas had slightly modified their original bill, but left it substantially pristine.
REASONS WHY THE MEDIA SPIN IS . . . SPIN
Despite what some in the media, as well as adversaries of religious liberty, are saying, here are seven reasons the Arkansas RFRA is good news for your religious freedom:
1. The Law puts another brick in the wall of protection for religious freedom in the country.
Activists for a secularized and “sexually liberated” America have caught on that RFRAs can slow their anti-faith crusade, so they are trying to stop any more from passing. But it may be too late. According to the Ethics and Public Policy Center, at least 31 states already have laws, constitutional provisions, or court rulings that provide some form of heightened protection for religious freedom.2 That’s a lot of the country! And of course, there is the federal RFRA, signed by Bill Clinton after a near unanimous passage. It’s going to be hard to undo all that protection.
2. The Law protects people of faith in its state by giving guidance to judicial authorities.
Adversaries of religious freedom do have a partial point: RFRAs tilt the judicial playing field in favor of religious freedom. As well they should—so does the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But RFRAs aren’t sharply worded mandates. They don’t dictate court decisions in favor of people of faith in religious freedom disputes.
What they do is establish principles to help courts understand that freedom of belief is precious to the well-being of society, and therefore that freedom should not be unreasonably burdened unless there is a compelling reason —and even then, that burden must be by the least restrictive means possible. That is the core of virtually every RFRA type law, amendment, or court ruling.
3. It shows freedom has backbone—that clever and brave politicians can stand up to the bullies of anti-faith intolerance even in the face of threats.
The Indiana RFRA reversal was an embarrassing and unnecessary failure of nerve by politicians panicked by intimidating opposition from large corporations—companies themselves stampeded like frightened cattle by the LGBT movement’s desire to have a show of power.
Arkansas was the antidote, the un-Indiana. Arkansas politicians came under similar fire, pressured by massive corporate power and other forces within their own state, and yet they stood strong. They sagaciously and civilly listened to the opposition, tweaked their original law in deference, but refused the wholesale capitulation and morphing of the law into a virtual license to persecute as was done in Indiana. And guess what? They survived.
The Arkansas face-down of anti-faith intolerance shows that religious freedom is the right side of history. It rips the cover off of empty threats by activists and corporations that doom awaits those who stand up to the politically correct mob. The Arkansas politicians faced down the lynch mob, and the mob dispersed.
4. It helps expose large corporations who discriminate against religious employees to dangerous losses in court—thus putting them on notice not to hassle employees of faith.
In the April 1, 2015 Wall Street Journal, the “Risk & Compliance” section noted that corporations who publicly castigated Indiana’s original RFRA were outing themselves as potential religious discriminators. That is significant. More and more people of faith are bringing legal action against companies to stop the companies’ religious discrimination, which is prohibited by laws like the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The article states, “CEOs are taking the risk of providing useful evidence to plaintiffs if their companies should happen to be sued for religious discrimination.”
The article quotes Hiram Sasser, First liberty Institute’s Director of Litigation. Sasser warns that public statements against RFRAs could be used to support a claim of a hostile work environment. “If these CEOs are so motivated to come out and speak against religious liberty in this way,” said Sasser, “they are sending a message to their employees that people of faith are not welcome in their company. That’s a very strong message, a very scary message.”
Do big corporations really want to keep attacking RFRAs in the face of mounting EEOC complaints and other legal action against companies like Fox Sports, Ford, Shaw Media, and large government institutions? As time passes and emotions cool, the corporate opposition to RFRAs might well become less strident. Or as Sasser warns, a company’s vocal criticism of a RFRA may force it to put the brakes on internal persecution of Christian or other faith-based employees.
5. The Arkansas law exposes the mistakes of politicians who cave in to the bullies, such as the Indiana legislature and governor.
Arkansas still exists. It has not disappeared from the face of the earth. Riots have not broken out. Economic apocalypse is not on its horizon. It is doing fine.
Conservative Arkansas politicians came off looking good to the voters. Indiana politicians, on the other hand, are still hated and disrespected by the sexual revolutionaries and now distrusted by their former conservative allies. Their future prospects could be bleak. Will future conservative politicians want to go down the path of Indiana or of Arkansas?
6. “Courage feeds courage.” The Arkansas victory will send a cultural signal that religious freedom is good.
With polls showing most Americans in favor of religious protections, the winning position with voters is to stand strong. Courage is infectious, and gives birth to more courage until a tipping point is reached. Courage must be practiced and rewarded.
That’s why 36 organizations,including First liberty Institute, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (of the Southern Baptist Convention), Citizen Link, and nearly two dozen pastors signed a letter congratulating Arkansas Governor Hutchison. In the letter, the coalition applauded Gov. Hutchinson’s efforts:
“You clearly understand the importance of the RFRA in defending the right of all Arkansans to guide their lives according to the dictates of their faith and conscience.
“That law gives people of all faiths a fair hearing whenever their religious liberty is threatened by the government.And it protects Arkansans’ freedom to be left alone to run their lives, businesses, charities, and schools in accordance with their sincerely held religious beliefs . . . .
By signing the RFRA into law, you have significantly advanced the cause of religious freedom. We hope that your principled stand will inspire other leaders all across America to act with similar courage and resolve in the ongoing fight over our Nation’s enduring commitment to religious freedom.”
The Indiana governor received no such letter—only scorn from the sexual revolutionaries who forced him to turn a religious freedom law into an anti-freedom law, and the disillusioned responses of stunned pro-faith voters who put him into office.
7. The law’s application in real life will help refute ridiculous charges against RFRA–style laws, which over time could spur the movement for more such protection.
In the two decades RFRAs have existed, there has never been one case—zero—of religious people seizing RFRAs to inflict such blatant mistreatment on any class of people.
CALM AFTER THE STORM
American politics is famously cyclical, bouncing between high emotion and settled realism. The recent “RFRA Wars” follow this pattern.
In 2014 we saw national hysteria over Arizona’s effort to strengthen its RFRA, a modification vetoed by a panicky Republican governor. Shortly thereafter Mississippi restored sanity by ignoring the hysteria and enacting a RFRA. This year witnessed the Indiana RFRA hysteria, followed quickly by Arkansas RFRA sanity.Currently, Georgia and Colorado are sadly tilting toward hysteria. But in American history, hysteria has been hard to sustain. Perhaps the anti-RFRA panic will be an exception, but one has to wonder.
Many RFRA and RFRA-style policies are in force and the theocratic inquisition conjured by the enemies of religious freedom has not come to pass. Political witch-hunts and constant false predictions are tiring, even to big corporations, judges and governors. We’ll see whether the tide turns to sanity and more RFRAs pass in the future. But whatever the outcome, RFRAs are already here to stay in most of the nation.
Christopher Corbett is Vice President for Strategic Communications at First liberty Institute.
1National Conference of State Legislatures: http://www.ncsl.org/research/civil-and-criminal-justice/state-rfra-statutes.aspx. Indiana is not included because its RFRA does not on balance meaningfully protect religious freedom.
2“31 states have heightened religious freedom protections”
Washington Post, 3.14.2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2014/03/01/where-in-the-u-s-are-there-heightened-protections-for-religious-freedom/
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About First liberty Institute
First liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit www.FirstLiberty.org.