In the two weeks since my last column appeared it seems as if full-scale religious conflict has broken out both locally and nationwide. There are grave issues here that are begging for me to weigh in with my perspective, so let’s get right to it.
The local freedom-of-religious-expression crisis came and went in about 48 hours. A visiting agnostic (always the outsiders stirring up trouble) got bent out of shape when he was greeted by the gate guards at Robins Air Force Base with a “have a blessed day” and he complained to the higher-ups. Said higher-ups initially responded to the compliant by banning guards from offering that (very vaguely) religious greeting, then they quickly reversed course in response to the predictable outrage that followed.
I’m not sure who irritates me more in these types of scenarios -- the people who get offended and complain at the slightest hint of religious talk in the public square or the equally oversensitive people who lose their minds if someone suggests they save their proselytizing patter for non-work situations. I’ll call it a tie.
At least that “crisis” was resolved quickly. At the national level, the conflict between religious freedom and equal rights for gay people seems destined to hang over our heads for years to come.
Several states have passed “religious freedom” laws that many people believe will open the door to state-sanctioned discrimination against homosexuals. Other states, including Georgia, are considering passing similar laws.
I devoted an entire column to the matter this year, so I won’t recount my objections to such laws in detail again. But the gist of it is that they are much too vague to have any real meaning and will be difficult to interpret and enforce.
As Dr. Ian Malcolm said in “Jurassic Park,” “boy, do I hate being right all the time.”
The governor of Indiana signed its version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law about the same time we here in Warner Robins were fighting our gate-greeting crusade, and outrage and befuddlement followed close behind. Like Georgia’s proposed RFRA, the Indiana law was full of generic language stating that the government shouldn’t pass laws that interfere with anyone’s practice of their religion unless it had a “compelling interest,” and that if did pass such laws it should do so in the least restrictive way possible.
As I pointed out in my column on the subject, that’s a noble sentiment and a good guideline for legislators to use as they make laws. But it is much too vague and open to interpretation to be enforced as law.
Given the fact that discriminating against gay people is a white-hot topic in America right now, it’s not surprising a lot of people assumed the law was going to be used by certain businesses to deny their services to gay people. So the inevitable protests and counter-protests ensued once news of the law’s passage broke.
Businesses looking to expand and convention planners immediately started canceling plans to have dealings with the Hoosier state, and the governor was forced to vigorously deny that the law was meant to be used as legal cover for any type of discrimination. He promised that it would be amended to make that clear.
It’s hard to believe the governor didn’t see this coming though. These laws have their origin in the frustration among religious conservatives who feel the government is imposing a liberal, secular lifestyle on all of us. It’s hard to imagine that the plight of people who may lose their livelihoods because they don’t want to violate their religious beliefs isn’t at the heart of this “religious freedom” movement.
I have a feeling we all know how this is going to end. The pendulum has swung in the direction of giving homosexuals the same protected status racial minorities and the handicapped enjoy under federal law, and it seems inevitable that will happen eventually.
Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins. Readers can write him at email@example.com.