Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. ( Amendment 1 – US Constitution)
All Hell is breaking loose in the press over Indiana’s recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act by folks who see it as an attack upon gays. As I see it, the main thing wrong with the law, if there is one, is timing.
The Indiana law is almost identical to laws in 19 other states, and a federal statute passed back in the Clinton administration. So far, none of those laws has been used to limit the rights of homosexuals. The law applies a "balancing test" in judicial proceedings, where states have to prove a compelling state interest before burdening the practice of a religious belief. There's little historical evidence to suggest that Indiana's RFRA could be used in a general way to deny service to customers who are gay. RFRA statutes in other states have never successfully defended a proprietor from an anti-discrimination suit.
On the other side, it is rather easy to compile instances in which the RFRA produced outcomes even the most liberal would applaud. There's the example of Kawal Tagore, a Sikh who was fired from the IRS for carrying a small knife that is the religious duty of all Sikhs to carry. She won recompense for her unlawful firing, thanks to the RFRA. Then there's Abdul Muhammad, a prisoner in Arkansas who won the right to grow a beard while in prison, in accordance with his religious belief.
Should the owner of a bakery refuse to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple’s wedding? Of course not – it’s bad business! Should he have the right to do so based upon his religion? Absolutely!
Part of the greatness of America lies in its citizens having the right to exercise their freedom of conscience. We have a guaranteed right to our beliefs, however outrageous they might be.
We have the right to be wrong!
History has determined that Lester Maddox was wrong to stand at the entrance of his Atlanta restaurant with an axe handle denying entrance to blacks. The federal government took him to court, and in Willis v. Pickrick Restaurant, he was ordered desegregate within 20 days. Rather than comply, he sold the place, and later went on to become the governor of Georgia.
Was he wrong? Absolutely! Did he have the right to exercise his misguided beliefs? I’m not so sure that he did not.
50 years later, he’s probably chuckling in his grave.