Of two minds (at least!) about RFRA


Abigail Adams wrote: “I’ve always felt that a person’s intelligence is directly reflected by the number of conflicting points of view he can entertain simultaneously on the same topic.”

If that’s so, I must be a freaking genius.

As I have read, watched and listened to the uproar over Indiana’s first pass at a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, my thoughts and feelings are sensitive to people at each pole of the argument.

My overwhelming emotion is disgust, however, at some of the laziest, alarmist, lowest-common-denominator reporting that I think I’ve ever had the misfortune to consume. True, some of the most ignorant, offensive vitriol comes from citizen “journalists,” but it is many of the people who actually get paid to do this work (I cannot bear to refer to them as “professionals”) who are the greatest offenders.

I do not know how many times I have read this week: “Indiana Law Permits Discrimination Against Homosexuals.”


Additionally, I have read: “IN’s RFRA Same As Longstanding Federal Statute.”

Equally false.

It’s gratifying to see many knowledgeable parties enter the debris field created by the initial disaster. Note to so-called reporters: These are the people you should have interviewed before you wrote your initial stories.

Mrs. Adams’ husband once stated: “Facts are stubborn things.” Here are a few:

Passed in 1993, the federal RFRA states that the government cannot impose laws/regulations that “substantially burden” an individual’s freedom of religious expression.

In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal RFRA overstepped, prohibiting states to regulate their lands for religious purposes. That decision has led to several states passing their own versions of RFRA in order to toss out the bath water but keep the baby.

Law professor Josh Blackman writes that, as signed March 26, Indiana’s law has broadened the federal statute to include corporations as well as individuals. It has changed that key phrase to “likely to be substantially burdened.” Additionally, it states that religious freedom can be a defense in judicial/administrative proceedings even if the government is not a party.

The elephant in the room is one of the hottest buttons in America’s culture today: gay rights. Among other arguments, people of bad and good faith alike have said for a while that granting equal protections to LGBT individuals sets a precedent of protecting conduct rather than personhood.

All these state RFRAs aren’t popping up just to protect Native Americans’ sacred lands and peyote ceremonies. There’s no doubt that cases with gay plaintiffs and Christian defendants are coming that will test the laws that have broadened the scope of the federal RFRA.

Tested. That is a very important word, and is vital to clarify the incorrect assumptions of Indiana’s law. Return to Josh Blackman’s blog:

The “point was totally lost in the Indiana debate–that RFRA does not provide immunity. It only allows a defendant to raise a defense, which a finder of fact must consider, like any other defense. RFRA is *not* a blank check to discriminate.”

Because I live in the real world and not some pie-in-the-sky utopia, I realize there will be people of ill will who will attempt to hide their hate behind RFRA. But, it would be great if some of the equally vitriolic in the LGBT/gay-rights community considered this observation from what they might consider an unlikely source, the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Andrew Walker writes:

“There is no good reason for any business, let’s say a hamburger stand for example, to deny a gay man or a gay couple the right to patronize the establishment. Let’s be clear: If there’s evidence of this — of a business owner denying someone service based on his being and not his conduct — the owner of said business should be held liable.”

But, he adds:

“To require a wedding vendor to service a same-sex wedding is not eliminating discrimination against the gay couple. It’s coercing the wedding vendor. Think of an alternative situation where a gay baker is required to bake dessert cakes for a pro-marriage rally sponsored by a conservative group. Surely we should acknowledge that a person should not be required to provide a good or service for an event premised on views that the baker finds objectionable. Do you really want to live in a country where supposedly free businesses are required to use their goods and services against their will?”

This ain’t an oil change, folks. Graphic artists, bakers, florists, photographers and other creative types sit down face to face with their customers to discuss vision, likes and dislikes. Imagine a pro-life leader coming to a pro-choice graphic artist asking for a poster or t-shirt design that includes an image of a human fetus?

For years, many local municipalities have had anti-discrimination laws that include their LGBT citizens. There’s no doubt that more states will pass their own laws, just as Illinois did six years after their own RFRA got the green light. If those laws are well written and head off the haters, count me relieved.

But there will be other cases.

It is through the messy, time-consuming—and yes, often ugly—process of the courts and the legislatures that America will reach the other side of this contentious, emotional debate.

Christians will be forced to put their motives under the microscope. “Am I being called to take a stand and engage in civil disobedience? Or am I simply unwilling to be respectful of someone with whose lifestyle I disagree?”

The shoe fits well on the other foot, too. “Do I really want to persuade someone of my convictions or simply condemn them for theirs?”

What would Abigail think? I’ve no idea. But from what I know of her, she seemed pretty practical, if ahead of her time. If she were aware of this debate, then it stands to reason she would also be aware of the Civil War. I’d like to think she’d say, “If we made it through that and survived as a nation, we can handle this, too.”

That is, if the headlines don’t kill us first.

Image: “Abigail Adams” by Benjamin Blythe. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Christianity Has No Color’

Handshake between african male and caucasian woman

Yesterday marked 152 years since the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, yet 2014 likely will be remembered for some time in the U.S. for its racial conflict, simultaneously when our first African American president was in his second term. It’s discouraging, to say the least, but the story of Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., and its racially diverse congregation continues to inspire me, so much so that I became a member of the church myself. Check out the .pdf for a snapshot of just how diverse we are: bcafeaturestory I was humbled to receive a first place award from BCA for this one. Here’s the story:

“As a body of Christians, we deplore the un-Christian practices so widely prevalent in many of our racial relationships.”

The wording might seem tepid in today’s social climate, but in 1937, messengers to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention made history when they passed the SBC’s first resolution on race.

Today, according to the SBC, nearly one in five of all Southern Baptist churches in the U.S. are comprised primarily of non-Anglo members. In Kentucky, 23 of the 45 new churches started in 2006 were ethnic congregations, mostly Hispanic, according to the Kentucky Baptist Convention.

Still, the two largest racial groups in Kentucky, Anglos and African-Americans, largely remain segregated on Sundays, even in communities where blacks and whites are neighbors.

An exception in KBC life is Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church in Louisville, a community of faith that reflects its community of residence. Charlie Davis has served as pastor for 18 years. He said the neighborhood has become more racially diverse in that time. Today, he estimates, about 15 percent of local residents are African-American.

“Thirty to 40 percent of our new members over the past five years have been black,” he added. About 350 people attend Sunday services each week.

When Dwight and Berniece Allen first came to Hunsinger Lane, there were very few other black faces in the congregation, they said. Previously the couple attended churches where most of members were black.

Mrs. Allen said when God led her to Hunsinger Lane, she asked Him, “Are you sure?”

That was 12 years ago. Today, she teaches an adult Sunday school class that mirrors the racial diversity of the church.

Dwight Allen, a Louisville native, endured bussing, a segregated city park system and other forms of racial discrimination as a child. He admits he carried bitterness from those experiences, but credits God, and a black pastor’s attempt to build a partnership with an Anglo congregation, for letting go of the past.

“God helped me get past that, and when He did, He opened a whole new world to me,” Allen said.

That new world includes close friendships with white members of his church family, such as David and Sandra Derryberry.

Originally from Selma, Ala., David Derryberry said he was in the last all-white graduating class of his high school, then attended predominantly white colleges.

Having black friends was something “I’d never really thought about,” he said.

The Derryberrys moved to Louisville and in 1998 joined Hunsinger Lane. They are members of Mrs. Allen’s Sunday school class.

David Derryberry considers the Allens “God’s missionaries to the white people of the church to help us along” the path to racial diversity, a path that has had a few bumps along the way.

He said there have been gaffes, largely unintentional, that have caused hurt feelings between some of the Anglo and African-American members.

A sense of humor helps, Mrs. Allen said, recalling a white member who speculated the church would need to adjust its worship style to accommodate the new black members.

“I asked, ‘Have you been to all the black churches in town?’ … All black people don’t do things the same way, just like all white people don’t do things the same way.”

Derryberry and the Allens said most of the rifts have been temporary and became opportunities for spiritual maturity.

“We’re all still human. We’re going to hurt each other,” Derryberry said. “Thank God He forgives us and we can forgive each other.”

During tense times, Allen said, he has tried to be “open, honest and truthful” and allow God to work through the difficulties.

“That’s what growth is,” he said.

The three friends said talking about differences between the cultures instead of trying to ignore them reduces the common fear of saying something inappropriate.

As the friendships have grown, church members have become comfortable enough with one another to do some teasing, Mrs. Allen said. Once, a white member offered her coffee with the joking assumption that Mrs. Allen would “take it black.”

She said she laughed and replied, “I don’t even drink coffee.”

Davis said as more people of different races began attending Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church, some Anglo members approached him with concerns. “It was mostly fear of the unknown,” Davis said, but noted that interracial dating and marriage was mentioned most often, along with changes in worship style.

Some people “are more concerned with their child marrying someone of another race than if their child married a non-Christian,” he said.

The Bible clearly accepts marriages between people of different races, he added. “From what I’ve studied, the forbidding of marriages (had more to do with) God’s people marrying pagans.”

Pastor: Believers should re-examine the gospel

Mrs. Allen said she believes the reason Southern Baptists and other evangelical Christians remain segregated on Sundays is because many people refuse to discuss the issue in the light of God’s teachings. “We don’t talk about it as Christians,” she said.

Some people believe differences in culture provide a sort of permission to keep blacks and whites separated on Sundays, Davis said. He disagrees strongly.

“Every aspect of our culture in the United States is integrated,” he said, noting schools, businesses and the legal definition of marriage are, by law, color blind.

“What that says is the world has less issue with the unity of race than the church does.” The ongoing segregation of churches, “is more than discouraging,” he added. “I think it’s a sin.”

Davis, Derryberry and the Allens credit God for the racial diversity and harmony at HLBC.

The issue cannot be addressed successfully through a book or a program, Davis explained. “It is a work of God’s Spirit through the gospel.

“The gospel provides all men and women with a new righteous standing before God. That’s part of the gospel,” he said. “The other part of the gospel is a social transformation … that because of the gospel, we as races and people come together, and come to one another, equally.

“That’s the part of the gospel that we as a church are not addressing,” he continued. He refers to this as an understanding of “our new race” as Christians.

Dwight Allen sums it up another way: “Christianity has no color.”

If a church wants to be more welcoming to people of other races, more is required than a couple of joint services annually with a congregation of another color, Mrs. Allen said.

Such efforts often accomplish little “other than to sit on the pew with someone of another race. … No real relationships are built.”

Davis agreed, noting that a racially diverse church family begins its journey worshiping together on Sunday mornings, then progresses outside the sanctuary.

At Hunsinger Lane, racial diversity extends to committees and the deacon board, the Sunday school class and also to the church staff.

A big step, Davis said, is when black or white homes are opened, perhaps for the first time, to people of another race.

“You have to pay attention to God and see how He wants to do it,” Derryberry said. “If you’re open to loving people, God’s going to bring you people to love. Some of them are going to be white; some of them are going to be black.”

Mrs. Allen said taking time to learn the racial and cultural make-up of the community around the church is important and can prevent members from seeming phony about efforts to be multi-cultural.

“Live who you are,” she said. “If you live in a diverse community, you should have a diverse church.”

Davis agreed. “I’m not saying every church should be fully integrated but I think every Christian church that says, ‘we believe the gospel’ should be working towards it.”

(With information from Baptist Press)

Feb. 10, 2009 by Dannah Prather, partnership editions editor, Western Recorder

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