Religious Freedom laws in the U.S. : Freedoms used to justify discrimination?

I taught my students about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a law that is being used to pass similar laws in various states in the U.S. The most controversial case involves  a similar law in Indiana. The contours of the case point to the idea that private businesses can discriminate against LGBT couples. But the ramifications of the case extend to other groups, point out civil rights activists. I spoke to my students about the origins of the freedom of religion provision, starting with the first amendment. 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.” These words have been interpreted variously and are being fought over. The meanings and interpretation of these words are being debated, both by the socially conservative and the

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While cases such as the Hobby Lobby are egregious examples of what can occur when large corporations work to deny healthcare to their employees, there are smaller instances of abuses of rights – in terms of daily indignities or insults that LGBT folk may have to put up with. And this brings us to the spirit of why these laws can actually hurt the minorities – not just LGBT, but potentially Blacks, Muslims, Jews and anyone who doesn’t look like a person who could fit in, and with whom the business doesn’t want to ‘do business’. The Atlantic has a powerful piece on this story that is developing, as we speak. The author of this piece points out two main issues with this law in Indiana. He says “First, the Indiana law explicitly allows any for-profit business to assert a right to “the free exercise of religion.” The federal RFRA doesn’t contain such language, and neither does any of the state RFRAs except South Carolina’s; in fact, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, explicitly exclude for-profit businesses from the protection of their RFRAs.” This clearly seems to be a case of interest groups lobbying to introduce provisions in laws that are intended to create an impact / make some noise, in particular, since many states are legalizing gay marriage.

So, is ‘Freedom’ an American virtue? If one would look closely at how the founding farmers came to the conclusion that there must be no established religion, one would conclude that freedom was constructed as an ideal that had to be held. While it is framed as an absolute ‘American virtue’, it is part and parcel of the American exceptional narrative – not bad or evil in itself – but it can certainly have certain implications, if taken to extremes. As my colleague pointed out to me, after the class, the very people who are fighting for the freedom of religious rights in Indiana are the ones who are creating a scare about Shariah law – and telling Muslims they cannot use their laws in American courts – if this is not hypocrisy, then I don’t know what is.

While teaching my students about freedom of religion in America today, I realized that i’ve (accidentally) become an Americanist. It is surprising that I can teach a few courses on American politics/ administration, but not a single one on South Asia/ India. Not sure if I should be proud of that! While I may have become an accidental Americanist, I do appreciate the insights I am gaining, both in teaching ideas to my students, and in delving into issues that are shaping contemporary America. The biggest challenge in analyzing many of the issues of contempory America stem from not parsing out the intended consequences and the narrative around issues. The narrative of freedom is used to create un-freedoms for some. This is a factor of American public life that is often lost sight of. Only by being vigilant and responsive to challenges such as these can we all ensure that the spirit of the American constitution remains alive.

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