Think "Religious Freedom" Laws Like Indiana's Don't Affect You? Think Again

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Think “religious freedom” laws like Indiana’s won’t affect you if you’re not gay? Think again…

The uproar in response to Indiana's law (and Arkansas' now-delayed version of the same) is not, in fact, about religious freedom. Indeed, religious freedom is already well-protected by federal law, not to mention specific laws in 19 other states. The problem in Indiana is that its new law is expressly a reaction to widening rights for same-sex couples — and it's specifically seeking to protect private businesses that discriminate.

States like Arkansas and Indiana don't have laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Because of that, there's a justified fear that these new measures will provide legal cover for businesses discriminating against the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community. In fact, the very people who created and backed the legislation are incredibly clear that this was their intent.

But, laws like the ones passed in Indiana and Arkansas could be used to discriminate against you, even if you’re not gay. Here's how.

What if you’re a single woman going to a bakery to have a cake made for your baby shower? Under these laws, could the bakers refuse to make you a cake because they object to you being pregnant and unmarried? You bet. 

A motel in Indiana could cite the “religious freedom” law in order to not rent a room to a gay couple, married or otherwise. It could also refuse to rent a room to an unmarried heterosexual couple. Or, a married interracial couple.

Wait a second, are there really any religions today that preach against interracial relationships? That doesn't even matter. “Religious free exercise” cases don’t require courts to make those determinations. They are based, instead, on an individual’s assertion of beliefs. According to Katherine Franke of Columbia Law School’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, the discriminatory beliefs don’t even have to be the official doctrine of the religion an individual is claiming. Nor does the individual have to be a devout or confirmed member of that faith. The asserted “sincerely held beliefs” basically just have to be plausible, explains Franke. That’s a low threshold for opening the floodgates of discrimination. 

Historically, churches and other religious institutions have been exempt from certain non-discrimination laws. Catholic parishes and Orthodox Jewish synagogues, for instance, aren’t breaking the law when they refuse to hire women chaplains and rabbis. The Indiana and Arkansas laws would extend these protections to for-profit businesses.

Business-owners, then, would have access to all the legal protections and special privileges corporate entities get and, at the same time, they'd have the right to assert their religious beliefs to get special exemptions from non-discrimination laws, too. In other states, for-profit businesses are required to treat all customers equally. Changing that in Indiana is a clear attempt to disguise bias and bigotry as religious liberty — effectively using religion as a weapon to attack the liberty of others.

So, under the Indiana and Arkansas laws, could a taxi company refuse to drive you to your appointment at Planned Parenthood? Yes. Having an affair with a married man? Maybe don’t count on that Uber ride home. (It sounds crazy, but the car company once bragged that it keeps exactly that kind of data on its riders.) Maybe don’t count on an Uber ride to work, either, since a businesses owner could claim objections to women working outside the home. 

Could a company cut off birth control coverage from its healthcare benefits? Well, yeah, we’ve already seen that with Hobby Lobby. By that logic, is it possible that a company could also deny health insurance coverage for sexually transmitted diseases contracted by unmarried employees who had sex, or revoke insurance coverage for single, pregnant staff members? Sure it is. 

The problem isn’t that these laws protect religious freedom. That’s a good thing. Religious freedom is a core value on which the United States was founded. The problem is that they allow private, for-profit businesses to assert religious beliefs to circumvent laws they simply don’t like. Trust me, if I had a business and a right wing religious homophobe came in for a coffee, I wouldn’t want to serve him one. But I would, because that’s the law. It's a law that does, and should, apply equally to all of us, and shouldn’t allow selective discrimination to hide behind a self-righteous, self-selected definition of morality. 
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