The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in 1993 with an almost unanimous vote in the House and Senate and was signed by President Bill Clinton. I don’t think anyone questioned the intent of the wording of the bill which was basically an affirmation of the First Amendment. I don’t know the intent or need of the introduction of that bill in 1993.
The Indiana Legislature has just passed and Governor Mike Pence has signed a similar bill. The impetus for this was to validate the right of a business or retailer to refuse to provide a service or product for same sex couples. This was proposed as a religious freedom restoration or protection act to protect businesses for decisions made on religious grounds. Some opponents of the bill see it as enabling religious bigotry. The passage has evoked accusations of discrimination and prejudice. Many businesses and promoters of entertainment or sports events and convention activities have suggested cancellation of events in Indiana.
Among the definitions of discrimination is “To make distinctions on the basis of preference or prejudice.” Some business owners claim the right of discretion, the freedom of action or judgment based on firmly held religious values, including sexual orientation and denial of service for any lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender persons. This is a similar claim of objections of some businesses opposing contraception coverage in employer funded health coverage.
Unlike racial discrimination, sexual orientation is not easily discernible other than transactions that are part of same-sex marriage photography or catering. Religion is a faith based freedom, which in theory is based on commands within the Bible, Koran, or other sacred document. The debate is about whether one person, at their discretion and judgment, can legally deny a service offered to the general public, based on religious objection.
Businesses have traditionally been allowed to deny service to people with animals, for improper dress, and to eject customers displaying offensive behavior on the premises. The prevailing counter argument is that sexual orientation is one of the many categories of protected civil rights.
In the long history of discrimination, we have assigned a different status to objections based on real or contrived religious directives and opinions based on secular or philosophical objections. During the civil rights movement and the integration of public facilities, owners of businesses denied service based on race. Some defended this with the argument that integration of their clientele would cause them to lose customers. Ultimately this was found to be unconstitutional and discriminatory.
The specificity of the Indiana legislation has caused a rift within the Christian community. Some denominations and individual congregations within other denominations endorse the official position that prejudice toward sexual orientation is not consistent with Christian principles and the New Testament teachings of Jesus. This is another liberal/conservative divide on biblical interpretation. Some Christians believe this legislation gives legal sanction to promote religious bigotry, similar to denying equal legal status to atheists and members of other religions.
In public schools we have found that students often bring the religious values of their parents, or secular philosophical views from non-religious family traditions. This often leads to peer proselytizing of overzealous evangelical religious dialogue, or ridicule from the detractors of religion. Schools are a microcosm of our culture.
Our God-given or constitutional rights guarantee us discretion and preference. We have the right to our own distinct and differentiated identity, whether by birth or preference. We may choose our enclaves of separation and preferential customers, friendships and associates. The validity of religious freedom for Christians should require some evidence of reasonable compassionate discretion.