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

liberals.rel free

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.

In God’s Land: Triumph of faith over facts

Pankaj Rishi Kumar’s In God’s Land is a dystopian tale set in Tamilnadu, South India. While it brings together history, discourse of development and progress, there is an underlying tale that is not visible, even after watching the film in its entirety. This is one of the “land grab mafia” involving the local Vanamamalai Temple authorities, the Tamilnadu government and of course, the Non-resident Indian investors in the U.S. I watched this movie last week, at Virginia Tech, where Kumar came over to screen his film and talk to students and faculty who were interested in the ideas that he had to share, through this film. The film is based on the village near Tirunalveli district and is a tale that made me question the untold stories of ‘development’ that one reads or often, does not read about.

Pankaj Rishi Kumar with Dr. Peter Schmitthenner, Dept. of Religion and Culture, Virginia Tech
Pankaj Rishi Kumar with Dr. Peter Schmitthenner, Dept. of Religion and Culture, Virginia Tech

The dominant narrative in In God’s Land is about the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) that is due to come up in the village, that’d occupy over 2500 acres of land. “I was passing by this area, when I saw this sign for the SEZ, and was intrigued. That is what started the project,” pointed out Kumar, about the serendipitous way in which he came across the project and hence his film. The villagers in the film are active participants and the story is narrated partly from their perspective, with Tamil as the language of the film. The film is very visual, and the sound of the local speaking in local Tamil dialect brought back memories of my own friends, who speak with a tone and speed that is all too befuddling, even for a Kannada speaker, such as me. The villagers also seem to be ones with agency and the will to defy the local authorities, mainly the temple chiefs who seemed to have appropriated the village property. A court case against the temple brought by the villagers decades ago is still pending, but it seems to have created animosity and also downright ‘oppression’ of villagers by the temple authorities. One of the village chief speaks of being physically harassed and beaten up for standing up against the temple’s illegitimate takeover. To complicate matters further, the temple authorities sell the land to the government, to develop the SEZ and this creates a situation, where their arable agricultural land is classified as “dry land,” up for “development.” And this is just one of the several absurdities in this situation that the film showcases.


The tensions between the villagers and temple are not only about the project, but involve the caste-dynamics, going back to centuries, involving economic issues of patronage and landless agricultural farmers. The villagers invent a new god, Sudalai Swami to cater to their spiritual needs, once they are barred from entering the big temple. They find creative ways to battle this imbalance of power. While the local priest couches his move to sell the village land in the notion of “doing good for the community and their welfare,” it seems a bit of a stretch to imagine how dispossessing hundreds of families and taking away their livelihood would constitute “welfare.” The landless farmers, who for decades have paid rent to farm on this land, are not technically without this piece of land, that sustains not only their lives, but also gives them a sense of purpose and agency- as the film demonstrates. There is a deep-rooted love of the land among these people, one that defies rationality. This seemed to be an attachment that is not only emotional, but partly mythical, given the strange way in which the land was originally handed over to them by the local ruler – the Nizam, more than a hundred years ago.

Finally, this film is also a call for examining the politics of development, as it stands today. As Arturo Escobar, the Colombian Post-development scholar and thinker would say, we need “undevelopment” rather than development, if we are to look out for the interests of these people. If I am sounding too Marxist for your taste, I suggest watching the film and also reading a bit of Escobar. A good reality check for those who are enamored of the development discourse, and see it as a totally necessary and not contingent fact of life. While not aiming to be an “activist” film, the film does raise some important questions that everyone involved should think through. While development does call for certain sacrifices on everyone’s part, the bigger question that one should ask, and I think Kumar is hinting at this is: Do we need this sort of development at all? And finally, who gains and who loses? Is all of it worth it, in the end?

The resilience of the landless farmers is startling, so is their humanity. Their collective will and character seems to shine through in the film, which, in an unexpected way makes them the heroes of the film. Between giving up hope, fighting the system and keeping their faith in a god they invented, the film shows them for what they are: Human, all too human.

“We Need to Heal the World Through our Work,” – Father Joseph Philippe


 Passover this year was unusual in many respects. While I am not Jewish and don’t observe the day, nor do most of the people at Virginia Tech; an unlikely visitor reminded us of the key message of Passover- Freedom and Liberation. This visitor was Father Joseph Philippe from the University of Fondwa, Fondwa, Haiti. He came on a mission to educate, inspire and also acquaint the audience of the challenges to higher education in Haiti.

            Father Joseph spoke of the Judaic notion of “Tikkun Olam,” or healing the world. “As human beings, we are all responsible for each other. We must help, stand by and support one another through difficult times and heal each other’s hearts,” he said. Going back to his own story of how he got into humanitarian action, he added:” I come from a very poor family and my mother was a street vendor. I saw poverty around me and struggled to bring myself up and educate myself. This quest lead me to become an Accountant and then a Priest. I realized early on that the main thing in life is to realize and be grateful for everything we have.”

            His life-work seems to be testimony to this positive attitude, as Father Joseph is the founder of Fonkoze, a microcredit institution and also the founder of University of Fondwa in Haiti. Higher education has especially taken a hit in Haiti, following the 2010 Earthquake. Pointing to the key challenges, he said:”Some of the challenges before us are basic: infrastructural and human resources. Since so many of the talented people died in the Earthquake and others fled, we are in dire need of people who have education and talents, to serve.”

            While his pitch to recruit volunteers was strong and he recommended that anyone wanting to volunteer must come with the mindset of a warrior, so as to be ready for anything; he was also aware that this is not for everyone. “I don’t want to create a new class of poor people, in the effort to remove poverty in Haiti. We need your help and will gladly give you any position that matches your qualifications or experience, but ask that you provide for your own salaries, as we don’t have the money to do that.” He pointed out.

            While the debate rages on about how development aid is channeled and used or abused, the fact remains that the situation in Haiti, especially in Haiti is quite dire.


Higher education in Haiti

His visit also points to the recent efforts by academics and humanitarians to address the needs for higher education in post-conflict and post-disaster zones. A recent report by Teacher’s college, Columbia University points out:” Given the severity and duration of these social upheavals, and the current state of human security around the globe, international and local actors have argued persuasively for turning attention to education. Education, they assert, can be a way to mediate conflict, and education services should be included in humanitarian aid packages, together with water and food, shelter, and medical treatment (Aguilar & Retamal, 1998; Johannessen, 2001; Machel, 2001; Save the Children Alliance, 1996; Sinclair, 2002). Backing this policy change, several international organizations have designed a number of education “tool kits” and other materials to assist humanitarian workers, educators, teachers, parents, and community members in providing education services during a complex emergency (Nicolai, 2003; Pigozzi, 1999; Triplehorn, 2001)[1].”

            Another report published in 2010 detailed the destruction of the close to 30 universities in Port Au Prince, which were already dilapidated and were not in very good shape to begin with[2].  Some of the recommendations include creating online classes for Haitian students, to enable them to graduate, and also to provide them access to online journals, to make up for the lack of libraries in Haiti.  There is a growing demand for support to local institutions, rather than offering opportunities to students to leave Haiti. Brain-drain is also identified as a negative consequence of the fellowships and scholarships offered by western institutions.

While there are a vast array of factors that have made the situation what it is, Haitian state-making failure is underwritten by a complex array of destructive local and external institutions, as well as natural constraints, including class, lack of elite cohesion, geography, population growth, the social origins of the Haitian polity, imperialism, and technology.

The solution to Haiti’s problems may not be simple, but they are within reach. What is needed is a strategic push, as this report by INURED points out. A combination of grassroots, government and international NGO efforts can help build Haiti, in the longterm. But as Father Joseph pointed out, it is the actions of every individual that count, in this case.” The individual who wants to transform himself through service is the one we are looking for. You will find your new self, a self that is bigger, greater and more generous than what you are today. Come, work with us to find that new self.” He pointed out.


About Father Philippe

Father Joseph B. Philippe, CSSp, founded Fonkoze in 1994 and continues to serve as Coordinator of Fonkoze, President of Fonkoze Financial Services, and a Board Director of Fonkoze USA.Father Joseph is also the founder of the Peasant Association of Fondwa (APF) and has been its coordinator since 1988. As part of the APF, Father Joseph established and helps manage numerous commercial projects, including an agricultural, reforestation and animal husbandry project, a bakery, a guest center/educational tourist program and a restaurant, as well as an auto parts shop, a guest house, a cement store and a scaffolding rental company. In 2004, Father Joseph also founded the University of Fondwa, an educational institution committed to sustainable and integrated development in rural Haiti.