By Christine M. Williams, Anchor Correspondent
DARTMOUTH, Mass. — Laws protecting religious freedom are nothing new, but the opposition to such laws seems to be gaining strength. Recent laws passed in Indiana and Arkansas faced such a backlash that politicians watered them down.
The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which applies only to federal law, passed in 1993. Twenty-one states have laws at the local level. Additionally, Massachusetts and 10 other states have similar provisions under case law. All of these religious freedom measures allow people who believe their religious convictions have been violated to seek exemption through the court system. To prevail in the suit, the government must show a “compelling interest” in enforcing the law
Opponents of the laws and many media outlets labeled the Indiana and Arkansas laws “discriminatory,” claiming that they allow people with religious convictions to deny service to homosexuals. They say such laws interfere with local anti-discrimination laws.
Dwight Duncan, professor at the University of Massachusetts School of Law Dartmouth and an Anchor columnist, said RFRAs do not authorize discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation. While such laws could conceivably be used by bakers or florists who do not want to participate in same-sex ceremonies, they have not been. RFRAs and anti-discrimination laws seek to accomplish two separate tasks and can coexist.
“I do not understand why we are being forced to choose between these things. I think that it is quite possible, indeed preferable, to be in favor of religious freedom and anti-discrimination law,” he said.
Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, called the hoopla over the new state RFRAs a “massive propaganda campaign.” Business owners who believe that Marriage is a union between one man and one woman should not be forced to provide services for same-sex ceremonies against their sincerely-held religious beliefs.
“This isn’t about serving someone at the lunch counter. It’s about participating in a wedding ceremony, and that’s really the distinction that needs to be made. You’d have a hard time proving in court that your religious freedom is substantially burdened by having to serve someone at a lunch counter or sell something off the shelf, but if you’re being asked to participate creatively and actively in a ceremony that violates your conscience, goes against your sincere religious beliefs, then that’s different. That’s a substantial burden,” he said.
Beckwith added that the United States was founded in Massachusetts by people in search of religious freedom, the first freedom listed in the Bill of Rights. The country’s founders never envisioned a nation in which Christian bakers and florists would be legally compelled to provide wedding cakes and arrangements for same-sex ceremonies.
“People aren’t supposed to have to isolate their faith to Sunday morning. It’s supposed to pervade the entire work week, including what they’re doing Monday through Friday,” he said. “So much of our lives is worked out at our vocation.”
Even with religious freedom enshrined in case law, people of faith in Massachusetts still find themselves at odds with the government at times. Recently, Gordon College, an Evangelical school in Lynn, reaffirmed its behavioral standards, including the prohibition of extramarital sex, that students and faculty are expected to abide by. The ban includes “homosexual practice.”
In reaction to the standards, the Lynn School Committee severed ties with Gordon College last August, ending the opportunity for Gordon students to take student-teaching positions at Lynn schools.
A member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Peter Kirsanow, said that under the First Amendment Gordon has the right to require employees and students to adhere to its religiously-based code of conduct. In a March 23 letter to the Lynn mayor Judith Kennedy, he wrote, “Gordon College does not wish to hire people who are engaged in homosexual activity because its religious beliefs teach that homosexual practices are sinful. Discriminating against Gordon College on the basis of its hiring practices is discriminating on the basis of its religious beliefs and behavioral code of conduct, and it is dishonest to claim otherwise.”
He called on the Lynn School Committee to reverse their decision.
Mary Anne Alliegro, a Catholic from East Falmouth, and a member of Liberty Chalkboard — a volunteer group of parents, grandparents and patriots who monitor public school curricula — said that she has heard about many instances in which students were not allowed to exercise their religious freedom in Massachusetts public schools.
“They have to hide their religious symbols, they are not allowed to say the word ‘God’ or talk about God, they’re told that that’s against the law,” she said.
Alliegro added that the truth is the absolute opposite. Students have the right to bring their Bible to school, pray at school and start a Bible club. People of faith need to exercise their rights so that those rights are not lost.
“We just have to stand up, speak the truth, and if we continue to do it, people will wake up, and then they will protect their children, families, their churches and stand up for religious liberty because what is the point of America if not that?” she said.