“Believers will always be strangers in a strange land – the question is how much freedom they will have to follow that belief in that land as they become all the more out of sync with the times, and how much we will deploy government to compel them to violate that belief. And that’s one more reason why the culture wars are just getting started.”
That’s what Ben Domenech wrote in an online publication just one day after Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed that state’s recently passed religious freedom bill.
I’ve been shouting the same thing from the rooftops here in Wisconsin for almost two decades. Religious liberty is being seriously threatened in the United States of America, in spite of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Few seem to understand that or if they do understand it, they don’t seem to care.
So what did happen in Arizona last week? In the wake of the federal level Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Arizona had in 1999 adopted a state version of this federal law. The bill introduced last month in Arizona was giving just minimal tweaks to the state’s existing language. Legal scholars tell us that SB 1062 “provided a) that RFRA protects corporations just the same as natural persons, b) that RFRA can be used as a defense in court against a suit by a private citizen, and c) that RFRA claims can be brought not just against the state government, but against all municipalities and “state actors” in Arizona.”
These tweaks are necessary in the wake of state supreme court decisions like the one this past summer in New Mexico. Elane Photography declined to do the pictures for a same-sex commitment ceremony and was sued and lost partly because the state claimed the owners of Elane Photography were being sued by private citizens and not the state and the New Mexico Religious Freedom Restoration Act applied only if the state brought the lawsuit. Proponents of the bill were just trying to make sure the state’s business community and private citizens had a fair chance in court.
SB 1062 didn’t do any, not one, of the things opponents were alleging. That was all emotion, hype, and lies—all designed to do exactly what they wanted and accomplished—kill the bill. It was messaging on a mission; destroy the credibility of the people promoting the bill. Paint them negatively; accuse them of hate and bigotry; invoke racial overtones with accusations of re-instating Jim Crow laws against homosexuals and more. Since the opponents owned the media, it worked. Reason and reality were trampled while people from all walks of life, from both ends of the political spectrum, weighed in—almost all of them without having read the bill or at least understanding it. Zeal without knowledge—a dangerous combination.
Here’s what Attorney Brandon McGinley, writing in the wake of all this said about this bill and the near hysteria that resulted: “… the fact of the matter is, if SB 1062 was unacceptable, then no substantive religious liberty protections will ever be acceptable.”
That ought to get your attention. Mr. McGinley and Mr. Domenech are both saying, religious liberty in America is about to become a figment of our imagination.
By now you should be asking as a Wisconsin citizen what protection do you have here should you be sued for denying a service to a customer? I would say, we don’t really know. We do have a strong religious freedom statement in our state constitution in Article I, Section 18, which states, “the right of every person to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of conscience shall never be infringed.” But we also have a Human Rights Protection Act similar to that of New Mexico’s that hung Elane Photography. We’ve not had the same kind of legal challenges here—yet—that have happened and are happening in New Mexico, Colorado, Vermont, Oregon and other states. The courts would tell us how much religious freedom we have depending on the courts’ interpretation of the State Constitution, the US Constitution and any pertinent case law. That ought to be enough to scare you right there.
Religious freedom is no trifling matter. It’s important; it’s what our country was founded on and for. Yes, Believers will always be strangers in a strange land, but that doesn’t mean we don’t engage in the culture wars. Too much is at stake not to.