Indiana’s Religious Freedom Bill: Paving The Way For Racial Discrimination

FINAL.EditorialCartoon.ReligiousFreedomBill.2.3The United States has been a country that has trumpeted the merits of diversity in all facets of life from countries of origin to religious freedoms. What the United States has done in the time they have promoted the need for diversity is a sort of constructing of America that involves making America a sort of archetype for a “pure” Christianity. In particular, the form of Christianity that seems trumpeted throughout history is the idea of white Christianity. This view of Christianity sees whiteness as the pinnacle of God’s creation and anything deemed too abnormal (or sinful as it is usually described) is often rebuked and shunned be it for adhering to another religion or interfering with the image of a “perfect” white Christian heterosexual utopia.

The argument is commonly made that we are in a post racial society and the foundation for that argument is the election of Barack Obama. Yet, the United States is constantly catching glimpses of the racism that is rampant around the country through police brutality, terminology used to describe minorities, and the not so subtle profiling of Islamic adherents. What happens when the door is opened to welcome racial discrimination back into society with open arms? The “Religious Freedom” Bill signed into law in Indiana opens the door for white Christians to practice discrimination and create boundaries based on race, relying on old myths that paint African Americans as inferior, is a reaction to perceived Christian persecution, and needs to be challenged as it reinstitutes a new Jim Crow in the United States.

The question is: In what sort of setting is discrimination by Christians ever justified? It seems that even if we do not agree with lifestyles, we are still called to love and help all people. There is little to be argued in the way of anyone threatening a Christian’s life by sitting down in their restaurant to eat a burger or buy a wrench from aisle 4 in a hardware store. The real issue appears to be the concept of superiority certain factions of Christianity think they have. “The Least of These” is a label these Christians run from embodying until they need it for political capita.

Regardless of your feelings on homosexuality, there seems to be zero excuse for discriminating against them, especially when they are bringing money to your business. Since there are people who support this bill and the implications it carries, perhaps it is worth looking at another implication it may have.

On March 26, 2015, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed the “Religious Freedom” Bill into law.[1] The description of this bill according to the listing for the Indiana General Assembly states:

Prohibits a governmental entity from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the governmental entity can demonstrate that the burden: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling governmental interest. Provides a procedure for remedying a violation. Specifies that the religious freedom law applies to the implementation or application of a law regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity or official is a party to a proceeding implementing or applying the law. Prohibits an applicant, employee, or former employee from pursuing certain causes of action against a private employer.[2]

The often repeated narrative of Christians being persecuted in America undoubtedly led to the creation of this bill, especially when it comes to some Christian businesses being (what they would see as forced) to make a cake for a gay wedding in Colorado, for example.[3] As the Indiana GOP would tell it, this bill allows for any private business to refuse service to any homosexual person or couple if the business own feels their religious rights or beliefs are being infringed upon.[4] What the general public may view as a form of discrimination became nothing more than an expression of religious beliefs and liberty according to those who crafted this legislation and the governor who signed it.

The text of Indiana’s bill as presented above begs more consideration than its implications for homosexuals. For starters, the bill makes no reference to homosexuals at all and therefore does not appear to be as specifically aimed as some would suggest. This alone leaves the door open for a wild variety of interpretations. Scott Neuman (for NPR) notes, “Rep. Bruce Borders cited the example of an anesthesiologist who objected to putting under a woman who was preparing to undergo an abortion.”[5]  In this context, the anesthesiologist would undoubtedly be someone who opposes the abortion in the first place.

Second, the bill implies that discrimination is acceptable as long as someone can argue that they are being religiously burdened by providing service to someone. This is discrimination because the business making the decision to refuse service to someone has profiled them and determined that they are somehow a threat to Christianity. What seems evident in this legislation is that it is white Christianity that is given the authority to determine who or what is a “threat” to their vision of how the United States should be. Governor Pence was well aware of the perceived license to discriminate which critics brought before him and he stated, “If I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it.”[6] Yet, it does seem to legalize discrimination even if it tries to mitigate that reality under the umbrella of religious rights.

The question is where legal precedent comes from for a bill like this to be passed. The proposal is framed around on a federal law called the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” which also played a crucial role in the Supreme Court’s decision in 2014 that allowed Hobby Lobby to be exempt from a requirement to cover certain contraceptives for women as mandated in the Affordable Care Act.[7] The text of the Federal Law is quite similar[8] and the example of the Hobby Lobby case provides evidence of the controversy still present over the federal government’s version that has seemingly split society.

There is little doubt that bills such as the one in Indiana are largely favorable of the Christian religion since Christianity is still the majority religion of the country and seems to be the majority religion of Indiana since the supposed focus is on homosexuals and this is the hot button issue of the day in Christian churches. For further evidence of how laws like this benefit white Christians, one can look at the case of Hamilton v. Schriro in 1996 where a Native American named Mark Hamilton tried to use the federal RFRA law to be exempt from two regulations at a correctional facility he was in as he said they infringed on his religious rights and practices.[9] The two regulations he was fighting against were the requirement to keep hair short and the prohibition against sweat lodges on the grounds of the prison.[10] He argued that his hair was a gift from his Creator and is to only be cut when someone close to them dies to which the prison asserted that weapons could be stored in the hair posing a safety risk for them.[11] He also argued that the sweat shop ceremonies were essential for his religious practice and he could not participate in any other aspects of his religion without such ceremonies to which the prison said that the ceremonies required objects that could be used to harm them and threaten their safety.[12] The lower court ruled in favor of Hamilton because they said the regulations burdened Hamilton’s religious practice, however, the appeals court reversed that decision saying that the burden on the guards was not properly taken into account.[13]

This is not the first time in the history of the United States that discrimination has been trumpeted under the name of religious rights by white Christianity. The Jim Crow Laws that encompassed the South during the beginning of the twentieth century are a reminder of what the “Religious Freedom” Bill sets precedent for.  In the case of Jim Crow, it is important to revisit the past as the United States weight the implications and precedents set by the “Religious Freedom” Bill.

The story of Jim Crow begins with slavery and white Christianity alike. As blacks were brought to the America through the slave trade, the idea of slavery needed defending, especially if the country was to insist that it was doing was “Christian” according to the white men in power who were allowed to define it. According to many in the seventeenth century, blacks were nothing short of savages stuck in a state of inferiority in slavery in a position assigned to them by God.[14] This was compounded by the idea that Noah’s curse of the descendants of Ham was a preordained curse that placed whites over blacks in God’s hierarchy as Ham’s descendants were destined to be servants for their entire lives.[15] These beliefs of white Christianity allowed for the passage of controversial laws before and during the Civil War. However, after slaves were freed, the need to establish the superiority of white Christianity was still a task to be carried out on society and it is here that the South passed what is now known as the Jim Crow Laws.

The story of the Jim Crow Laws is one that has left a black eye on the face of Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam alike. “Jim Crow” itself was a derogatory slang term used for a black man that was used to label laws that created different rules for whites and blacks.[16] The laws were the direct result of white supremacist thought, but in particular[17], white Christian supremacy.  Segregation became the law of the South as different facilities were created that kept whites separated from black as court cases such as Plessy v. Ferguson upheld the legal right (at the time) to have separate facilities that were often filthy and unkempt for blacks and were clean and well-kept  for whites as blacks were viewed as inferior to whites.[18] It seems that the stage is set once again for such discrimination in Indiana and any states that seek to follow in their footsteps. The problem begins with the discrimination of homosexuals and has the potential to spread to racial categories and once we consider the heightened racial tensions between whites and blacks due to police brutality, living situations, and racially charged rhetoric on both sides, it seems that there is very little to stop white Christian business owners from enacting their own flavor of Jim Crow.

Simply stating the possibility is not quite convincing enough, but there are examples already occurring in the name of white Christianity to consider. One does not have to look as far back as the Jim Crow South to recognize this potential reality. In 2012, Charles and Te’Andrea Wilson attempted to get married at the First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs in Mississippi (a predominantly white church) and were told that “no black could be married at the church.”[19] Requiring church membership before agreeing to wed a couple is one thing, denying a couple the ability to marry in a church based on skin color is quite another. This story from three years ago has shattering ramifications in light of Indiana’s bill. After all, if a church anywhere in America can deny an African American couple the ability to marry in their church on some sort of religious conviction, what is stopping a private business in Indiana from doing the same?

What is even more troubling is that Indiana has four active groups of the Ku Klux Klan that are still meeting in their state. They are tied with Kentucky for the fourth highest number of KKK groups present just behind Texas, Alabama, and Tennessee.[20] James Baker argues that their influence is not directly political in Indiana, but is still affecting society.[21] This allows for a trickle up type of situation. The society the Klan is affecting is the same society that votes for their political representatives and sways the government in voting. In essence, the Klan still has quite a hold on the government in Indiana even if it is not quite direct. The stroke of the brush required to see the possibility of white Christian discrimination of blacks at businesses becomes much smaller when one considers this and the very real possibility that some of those Klan members are business owners in Indiana.

Opening the window to racial discrimination against African Americans and creates boundaries worth examining. The first boundary is that of what proper Christianity is. In this case, proper Christianity is white, heterosexual, and practices their version of “literal” Christianity. It also practices a subtle continuation of inferiority be it inferiority of African Americans or homosexuals and that creates a boundary of superiority that now has legal standing to operate. The other boundary to look at is the boundary of race. The door is certainly open for racial discrimination from this law and all the owner has to do is make an argument well enough to defend their refusal to serve an African American. A tangible example would be employing the language of Darren Wilson when he described Michael Brown as someone who looked “demonic”[22] in a way to describe the supposed behavior of an African American in their establishment.

Discussed earlier were the mythos surrounding African Americans both during the slave trade and the Jim Crow South. There is quite literally nothing in the bill stopping discrimination on the basis of race and that allows for racist white Christians to make any scriptural interpretation they can muster to cast blacks out of not just their businesses, but perhaps, their cities and towns as well. This creates businesses that cater to blacks and businesses that do not in a modern day twist on Jim Crow segregation. These narratives have not completely died and that is evidenced by the presence of the Ku Klux Clan in Indiana. The KKK has been active in Indiana as recently as October 2014 in Centerville, Indiana.[23] This further proves their relationship and influence on society which is also interesting considering the timing is so close to the General Assembly in Indiana debating the “Religious Freedom Bill”. To pretend that we are a post racial society because of Barack Obama’s election as some would suggest is to ignore the obvious presence of racism in Indiana and around the country. The Supreme Court siding with Hobby Lobby in 2014 also set precedent for this law in a way which gives private businesses a pass to resist some government laws on the basis of religious grounds.

There is no question that there is a narrative of Christians claiming to be persecuted in the United States. These claims are made on the basis of having to concede strongholds long held by Christianity on the United States Government and United States society in the name of religious diversity and religious freedom. Terminology which suggests freedom from religious influence on society by atheists and agnostics (as well as many religious adherents) might as well be bombs dropping on the fortresses built by more fundamentalist sects of Christianity. It is in this environment that Indiana crafted the “Religious Freedom” Bill. Ironically, if the Hobby Lobby case of 2014 proves anything, it is that Christians still have a bit of clout with the government, and yet, certain sects of white Christianity seem to be digging their heels and drawing lines in the sand in the name of their religious beliefs as if they are all but gone.

Indiana’s law continues to be criticized and pushed back against for a varying number of reasons. The implications of discrimination against homosexuals is certainly not to be ignored, but neither should the implications of racial discrimination against African Americans or any minority for that matter. The law is vague in its wording and yet clear in its potential application. Concrete within it is the idea that white Christians have the authority to deem what is normal in society. The law also continues the narratives that helped Jim Crow pass albeit a bit more covertly. It will be interesting to see if the law is either repealed or edited to accommodate potential abuses. Such challenges calling for repeal and changes to the bill are not only expected, but appear to be quite necessary. The lives of minority groups are no less of value than a majority and the changing tides of society will surely continue pushing back against narratives of inferiority in this bill.

Since the days when America was a collection of eastern colonies, white Christianity has sought to paint any minority outside of their religious beliefs as inferior. Despite progress the United States has made in regards to religious diversity, power structures exist to keep the definitions of the First Amendment in favor of white Christianity and no greater evidence exists than the Religious Freedom Bill passed in Indiana. As long as entities such as the KKK are allowed to hold sway on societies, then laws that pave the way for a return to Jim Crow are going to continue to be produced. The idea of Christians being persecuted does not seem to justify persecuting others, though that is what this bill does. Laws like these will continue to be contested and attacked for their apparent open door for being discriminatory towards minorities.  It is with the sincerest hope of this writer that the door open for any sort of discrimination is slammed shut sooner rather than later.

[1] Scott Neuman, “Indiana’s Governor Signs ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill”, NPR.org, Published March 26, 2015, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2015/03/26/395583706/indianas-governor-signs-religious-freedom-bill (accessed April 20, 2015).

[2] Dennis Kruse, Scott Schneider, and Brent Steele, “Senate Bill 101”, Indiana General Assembly, https://iga.in.gov/legislative/2015/bills/senate/101#digest-heading (accessed April 21, 2015).

[3] Todd Starnes, “Baker forced to make gay wedding cakes, undergo sensitivity training, after losing lawsuit”, FoxNews.com, Published June 3, 2014,http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2014/06/03/baker-forced-to-make-gay-wedding-cakes-undergo-sensitivity-training-after/ (accessed April 21, 2015).

[4] Scott Neuman, “Indiana’s Governor Signs ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill”, NPR.org, Published March 26, 2015, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2015/03/26/395583706/indianas-governor-signs-religious-freedom-bill (accessed April 20, 2015).

[5] Scott Neuman, “Indiana’s Governor Signs ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill”.

[6] Scott Neuman, “Indiana’s Governor Signs ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill”, NPR.org, Published March 26, 2015, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2015/03/26/395583706/indianas-governor-signs-religious-freedom-bill (accessed April 20, 2015).

[7] Scott Neuman, “Indiana’s Governor Signs ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill”.

[8] Legal Information Institute, “42 U.S. Code Chapter 21B – RELIGIOUS FREEDOM RESTORATION”, Cornell University Law School, https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/chapter-21B, (accessed April 22, 2015).

[9] Robert F. Drinan, “Are the Expectations for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act Being Realized?” Journal Of Church And State 39, no. 1 (December 1, 1997), ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 23, 2015): p. 58.

[10] Robert F. Drinan, “Are the Expectations for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act Being Realized?”: p. 58.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Robert F. Drinan, “Are the Expectations for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act Being Realized?”: p. 59.

[14] Paul Harvey, “A Servant of Servants Shall He Be”, in Religion and The Creation of Race and Ethnicity edited by Craig Prentiss, (New York: NYU Press, 2003): p. 16.

[15] Paul Harvey, “A Servant of Servants Shall He Be”: p. 19.

[16] Constitutional Rights Foundation, “A Brief History of Jim Crow”, CRF-USA.org, http://www.crf-usa.org/black-history-month/a-brief-history-of-jim-crow, (accessed April 21, 2015).

[17] Constitutional Rights Foundation, “A Brief History of Jim Crow”.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Huffington Post, “Wedding Banned: Black Couple Told They Can’t Wed In Baptist Church”, Huffington Post, Last Modified July 27, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/27/wedding-banned_n_1711201.html, (accessed April 22, 2015).

[20] Southern Poverty Law Center, “Active Ku Klux Klan Groups”. SPLC.org, http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-files/ideology/ku-klux-klan/active_hate_groups, (accessed April 20, 2015).

[21] James Baker, “Column: Discrimination in Indiana”, Cincinnati.com, Published April 8, 2015, http://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/local/indian-hill/2015/04/08/column-discrimination-indiana/25457121/ (accessed April 22, 2015).

[22]Katy Waldman, “Demons and Supervillains: The Language of Darren Wilson’s Grand Jury Testimony”, Slate.com, Published Novemeber 25, 2014, http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2014/11/25/the_language_of_darren_wilson_s_testimony_close_reading_the_demons_and_supervillains.html, (accessed April 21, 2015).

[23] Seth Slabaugh, “Klan leaflets left around Indiana city”, IndyStar, Published October 10, 2014, http://www.indystar.com/story/news/2014/10/10/ku-klux-klan-winchester-indiana-recruiting/17028771/, (accessed April 20, 2015).

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charlestinsley

My name is Charlie Tinsley and I blog about The Bible. In particular, I post my thoughts, commentaries, and Bible Study teachings I have done. I hold a Bachelors Degree in Science in Religion Summa Cum Laude with a Biblical Studies Minor. I am currently studying for a Masters In Divinity at Eastern Mennonite Seminary with PhD ambitions in the study of Theology. I am married and have been for several years and I currently reside in Virginia.

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