RFRA Riff-raff

EditorialBy Phil Erwin

First it’s Mark Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com. Next comes Tim Cook, CEO of Apple. Stunningly successful gentlemen, both; and very rich guys. Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE weighed in. All of them at the Executive helms of American-based, powerhouse global corporations. People whose word gets attention; who you would hope know whereof they speak. The heads of Angie’s List and Wal-Mart have chimed in, too.

Apple CEO, Tim Scott

Apple CEO, Tim Scott

All have declared Indiana’s “RFRA” law (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) to be, essentially, a guarantee of “discriminatory” practices.

As big-time CEOs, these folks are used to having their opinions count for something. Unfortunately, they’re just ignorantly parroting the political narrative of the extreme Left – those rabid anti-freedom, anti-religion fanatics who could find anti-gay sentiment encoded into a Mattel toy. Either the CEOs agree with the Left’s inherently anti-religion agenda; or they misunderstand what is the true agenda.

Either way, they’re fundamentally wrong when it comes to RFRA.

Here is the basic truth about RFRA laws: They are intended, designed, and worded to uphold religious liberties. And as such, they are strictly in keeping with the Constitution, which is the fundamental law of the land, the bedrock upon which our entire system of interwoven Federal, State and local laws, is founded.  

The Constitution was very early on amended to include language upholding certain basic freedoms, because the language of the Constitution itself was vague and imprecise about these, and that was determined to be insufficient to render our freedoms inviolate. So the “Bill of Rights” was born, as a set of ten formal Amendments to the Constitution, in order to explicitly, formally, guarantee certain “unalienable” rights.

And the very first of these listed, guaranteed rights was: The freedom of religion.

Why was that the first freedom so enumerated? Was it because religion itself was considered more important than any other freedom?

Well, perhaps. But not because religious faith was meant to trump other aspects of human experience. It was because a fundamental reason for coming to the New World was to escape religious persecution. The Pilgrims pilgrimaged because they were sick and tired of having no religious liberty. People endured uncertain, uncomfortable, perilous months at sea, and then years of strife and struggle on land, because they wanted to be where no one could tell them how to live their spiritual lives.

They wanted freedom of religion.


Thus it was encoded first in the Bill of Rights, because it was a primary reason for seeking a new land; for founding a new country.

So RFRA laws are fully in keeping with the legal foundation of America, in that they are designed to guarantee protection for the free practice of religion.

Now, that doesn’t seem like something that should be controversial, does it? That seems like something we should all agree to be a good thing, doesn’t it? Even atheists, if they are reasonable, should agree that the freedom to practice religion should be as protected as the freedom to choose not to practice.

Indiana’s RFRA simply guarantees that if you choose to practice religion, the government cannot interfere with that practice, unless there is some compelling reason to do so.

Let’s examine what might constitute such a compelling reason.

Suppose a new viral disease took hold which was 100% lethal, and 100% communicable, but took five years to reach end-stage. (In the early years of awareness about AIDS, it was feared to be as deadly as this hypothetical – and it might have been, were it an airborne illness.) Now suppose a vaccine is developed which is 100% effective if given a month before exposure to the illness, but ineffective if given only 2 weeks before exposure. (Vaccines can be highly effective, but they take time to “take hold.”)

In this hypothetical world, it would clearly be government’s responsibility to see that the vaccine is made available to all people, as quickly as possible. It would also be government’s responsibility to see that no one entered the country unless they had been vaccinated at least a month earlier. And if the population could be 100% vaccinated, then one month later there would no longer be a national threat.

But you can’t vaccinate 100% of the population, because there are a few hundred thousand, perhaps even a few million citizens whose religious precepts preclude vaccinating. You can’t make them take the vaccine without violating their fundamental right to religious freedom.

Now, you could say that they constitute a risk to others if they remain unvaccinated, because they might catch the disease and infect others. But in this hypothetical, the only people whom they could infect would be others who had refused the vaccine. So it would not, after the first month, constitute a public health risk except to those refusing vaccination. Therefore, there would be no fundamental governmental protection denied to anyone, and the religious freedom would trump government’s duty to protect the public.

RFRA laws would preclude the government forcing vaccination on those whose religion forbade it – even if that refusal cost them their lives. And that is the entire purpose of RFRA: To enable religious freedom.

Now reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine by just one percent. Say it only protects 99% of the time. In a nation of 320 million, that would still leave 3.2 million people vulnerable to certain death if exposed. That’s a lot of people to take with you. One would hope that those whose religion forbids vaccination would recognize their responsibilities to their fellow citizens, and make a single exception for this one vaccine.

But the government couldn’t take that chance. The lives of 3 million people would trump religious liberty. RFRA laws would not permit religious-based refusal of vaccination when such refusal endangers the lives of others.

So if RFRA laws guarantee religious rights, but don’t allow the rights of others to be trampled in the process, what’s the problem?

The problem is that those who object to RFRA are either misunderstanding, or deliberately misconstruing, both the letter and the spirit of the laws. They aren’t trying to protect gays from persecution; they are attempting to persecute religious citizens for being faithful to their religions.

Wal-Mart’s CEO Doug McMillon proudly Tweeted, “Every day in our stores, we see firsthand the benefits diversity and inclusion have on our associates, customers and communities we serve… It starts with our core belief of respect for the individual.” OK, Mr. McMillon – Where is your respect for principled religious people? Where, your inclusion of individuals who strive for spiritual purity? Why don’t you champion their core beliefs?


Wal-Mart CEO, Doug McMillon

RFRA does not challenge diversity and inclusion; it only guarantees that individuals, and organizations of individuals, cannot be forced to violate their religious tenets without good cause.

The Left does not want religious freedoms to have the protection of law. They want to end legal protections for religious practices, thus rendering American society forcefully secular. The anti-RFRA protestors may or may not recognize this underlying aim; but by trying to prevent RFRA laws from protecting religious practices, they are bullying and persecuting the religious.

And that, Mssrs. Benioff, Cook, McMillan, et al, is as un-American as it gets.

Shame on you all.

*Featured Image: K.G. Hawes/Flickr


Phil Erwin is an author, IT administrator and registered Independent living in Newbury Park. He sometimes wishes he could support Democrat ideals, but he has a visceral hatred for Lies and Damn Lies, and is none too fond of Statistics. If his writing depresses you, he recommends you visit Chip Bok’s site for a more lighthearted perspective.

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Phil Erwin

These questions reflect the typical objections to RFRA laws; and as usual with Left-centric objections, they bend the discussion away from truth and toward misunderstanding. RFRA laws don’t, by themselves, give people a license to “refuse service” to any specific person or class of persons. The point is not service refusal; the point is to enable religious people to identify types of behavior that they cannot engage in BECAUSE THEIR RELIGION PRECLUDES IT, and irrespective of whom requests it.

Saying “I’m sorry, I cannot do that for you because it violates my religion” is NOT prejudicial refusal to serve; it is a polite but firm refusal to engage in behavior considered morally objectionable, REGARDLESS of whom requested it. Gov. Huckabee calls this “discretionary” refusal, as opposed to “prejudicial” refusal. I’m not sure the vocabulary works well as a slogan, but it is an accurate way to distinguish the two.

RFRA laws don’t guarantee any “right” to “discriminate,” but they do offer individuals a path to judicial review of their “reasons” for exercising “discretionary refusal” to serve. So to your questions above:

1) Refusing to serve blacks at a lunch counter is not predicated on any religious tenet, so: NO.

2) Lack of competing alternatives is not a valid reason for government having the power to COMPEL behavior considered, not just objectionable, but spiritually/morally DANGEROUS. However, it might raise the bar of “proof of good cause” in a court proceeding. Reverse the question: Why should a judge (or the government) deny a religious objection to service if there is a perfectly good alternative available right across the street? What is the societal value in that? (Consider the “No shoes, no shirt, no service” restaurant slogan — No one is being discriminated against, all they have to do is put on clothing. And if a homeless person says, “Man, I’m starving and I don’t have any shoes,” you think a proprietor wouldn’t at least give him a plate outside the kitchen? But the government would not COMPEL service in that case. Why should government be able to COMPEL service over a LESS morally-trivial objection than “no shoes”?)

3) I’m not sure there’s a good answer to “where does it stop?” If legal disputes had clear boundaries, we’d probably need a lot fewer judges; our court backlogs suggests most disputes are pretty fuzzy. But a lack of boundary doesn’t mean the RFRA approach is not a valid one, nor a VALUABLE one, just that it might need more clarification — which is presumably what Indiana and Arkansas are attempting to do now.

Citizen Reporter

Thanks, Phil. These are sentiments I have heard before and I wanted them addressed too.

Citizen Reporter

Excellent analysis, Phil. I agree with you, but these thoughts came to mind anyway. The only things I thought of that you didn’t address, which I would like to hear you opine on:

1. Is refusal of service under those laws analogous to refusing service to blacks at lunch counters in the old South? I realize that wasn’t usually done on religious grounds, but simply racial prejudice.

2. Law proponents say that if people are refused, they can simply go elsewhere. What if refusal made it impossible for refusees to get the services they sought, because of lack of alternatives/competitors?

3. What if someone said their religion forbade them to serve a child molester, a Jew (this prohibition has actually been cited), or whatever? Where does it stop?