By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
Arkansas House Bill 1228, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, doesn’t actually say anything about gay rights. What it says is, “A state action shall not substantially burden a person’s right to exercise of religion … unless it is demonstrated that … (it) is essential to further a compelling governmental interest; and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
Of course gay rights is what led to the bill and is what everyone is talking about. But the more important issue is one fundamental to any society: To what degree should majority values be enforced on a minority?
In this case, what once was the majority view – marriage involves only a man and a woman – rapidly has become the minority view. And yet that view still is held by many people with sincere religious beliefs. The most famous example is photographer Elaine Huguenin, a Christian who was fined $7,000 after declining to take photographs at a lesbian wedding ceremony. That fine was upheld by the New Mexico Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, says the standard for protecting religious belief has been lowered and needs to be raised. Arkansas’ bill is similar to a federal law signed by President Clinton in 1993 and ones passed by 20 states. President Obama voted for Illinois’ as a state senator – though Illinois also has stronger protections for homosexuals. Most of these laws weren’t related to gay rights at the time they were passed, according to the fact-checking site Politifact.
Indiana, which recently passed a similar law, is really feeling the heat, but so is Arkansas, and it may get hotter. On Monday, protestors chanted “Shame on you!” at a stone-faced Ballinger as he left a committee room. The gay rights group Human Rights Campaign published a full-page ad in the San Jose Mercury News, which serves Silicon Valley, saying Arkansas is “closed for business due to discrimination.” Walmart and officials with Acxiom have opposed the bill.
A little empathy – and a little less shouting – might be in order here. If you are not gay, imagine how you might feel had you been subjected to ridicule since childhood and if the state had passed an amendment banning gay marriage in 2004? You might be wary of any law you think is aimed at you. And for those who say House Bill 1228 is legalized bigotry, would you want the government forcing you to participate in a ceremony that violates your beliefs? Then why do you want that to happen to Elaine Huguenin?
In a committee meeting on Monday, Rep. David Whitaker, D-Little Rock, asked if the bill could include a non-discrimination amendment. Ballinger said the issue should be debated and considered in a separate bill.
That would be good. It’s a difficult balancing act, but the law must try to protect people’s right to pursue happiness at the same time it protects other people’s right to believe and act as their consciences direct. Probably more time should be taken to consider how that’s done, and in fact that may be happening.
In 2004, I was one of the 25 percent of Arkansans who voted against the state’s anti-gay marriage amendment. I did so because government should not “define” marriage or stick its nose into how two people live their lives.
But I also support the intent of this bill. So I guess it comes down to this: Two people ought to be able to live how they want to live, but the government shouldn’t make another person take pictures of it.
The older I get, the more I’m convinced that while we say we believe in freedom, we don’t mean it. Apparently, it’s a fundamental aspect of human nature to use government to force people to agree with us. At its worse, it’s truly terrible, as history has shown. More often, it results in a slow erosion of freedom – sometimes in one direction, sometimes the other, but ultimately to the detriment of all.
House Bill 1228 is the latest battle in this culture war – a war usually framed as involving two sides – those who want the government to enforce conservative personal beliefs, and those who want it to enforce liberal personal beliefs.
There is a third side – we who want the government to focus on protecting freedom, including for those with whom we disagree.
Join our side. All are welcome.