The late-March passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the uproar that preceded it and crescendoed in response have had me reflecting on this important question for all of us to consider: What kind of neighbors will we be?
We’re in the midst of a historical season in which fear is a constant companion in our civic community. Fears of terrorism and street violence, economic vulnerability and political corruption are constantly whispering in everyone’s ears. And for some, fears of moral decline and government overreach have been particularly pernicious; both of these fires have been stoked by recent changes in societal attitudes about the place of gay people in our common life. As acceptance of homosexuality as a human trait analogous to heterosexuality has grown, laws prohibiting gay marriage are being seen as the acts of discrimination they are, and they are melting away in the glare of the Constitution. This and many other developments are leaving social conservatives feeling like an unprotected minority in need of legal defense against being compelled by the government to act against their moral convictions.
Enter the RFRAs, which seek to protect individual rights. Because of the lack of explicit protections for LGBT citizens against discrimination in Indiana, the RFRA as passed in late March legalized discrimination under the guise of religious freedom. Even when the legislature “clarified” the law, it still left room for explicit discrimination everywhere there aren’t explicit anti-discrimination protections, which for LGBT people, is nearly everywhere in Indiana.
This is not a new idea in America. It’s the idea we fought against and outlawed in the Civil Rights movement half a century ago. Civil rights legislation limited the religious freedom of American citizens in the name of prohibiting discrimination. As a nation, we chose the common value of equal treatment for all over the value of religious freedom in the public sphere.
We are revisiting that conversation these days. Should refusing service to a gay person be the right of a public servant or business owner? Should a person’s right to free religious practice in public trump the right of all people to be treated equally, without discrimination?
When we ended legal racial segregation in America, we proclaimed a resounding “No!” to those questions. Our answer shouldn’t change, even when this means a religious person must act against their religious conviction to serve a gay person. Just as we said back then to those who thought racial segregation was God’s way for humanity.
To allow discrimination of any type for any reason in our public space is un-American. At the very heart of our separation from Great Britain was the concept that all people are equal. We have struggled for since our founding to live this value fully, but it is at our very core as an American people: all people have dignity that must be respected, and discrimination is a fundamental sin in our civic morality.
Mature religion—of every stripe—rejects exclusion and discrimination as a holy act. Discrimination is most certainly un-Christian. Jesus was very clear with his life and his teaching: boundaries based on morality and righteousness were the opposite of the way of God. If there is any preferential treatment in God’s realm, it is in favor of those we consider morally impure and those pushed to the margins.
The deepest question we face is not a legal one or a political one. It’s a moral question about what kind of community we will be. Will we be a community of exclusion or one of inclusion? Will we be a community that allows mistreatment of some of our neighbors by others, or will we stand up for just treatment of all? Will we be a community of separate groups that never overlap or listen to one another, or will we be a community that celebrates and embraces diversity with genuine curiosity and willingness to grow?
Will we be a community run by fear, or a community characterized by trust?
Here’s a way forward for all of us: be a proactive neighbor. Reach out and get to know your neighbors. Look for their beauty and giftedness. Learn their story (rest assured: everyone has a story!). Understand what inspires them and drives them to be their best self.
For all of us, that’s easy with some people and difficult with others. What people might you have a hard time reaching out to? What group would you rather eat tinfoil than spend an hour listening to? That’s important information; pay attention to it. Is it gay people? Republicans? Slobs? Uptight rich people? Welfare recipients? Liberals? If it’s hard to imagine having a person-to-person conversation with someone from that group, you’re seeing something about yourself. This is an opportunity for growth for you! There’s something in you that is preventing you from experiencing all that life has to offer. Stretch. Reach out. Listen. And let the wall you’ve unconsciously (or maybe consciously) built begin to crumble. For your own sake, for your kids’ sakes, for our community’s sake, and for our nation’s sake, be a proactive neighbor. And discover the joy that comes from familiar walls crumbling before our eyes and new friends standing on the other side.
This piece was written for publication in the April-May 2015 edition of Indy Midtown Magazine.