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Friday, April 4, 2014

On the "Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act" of 2014

Sometimes politics is, well, just politics. In the American system of government there often come times when politicians need to make sure everyone sees them doing something, even if the something they accomplish is repetitive, moot, or pointless.

A wonderful case on point is the recently ratified “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” that Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed into law on April 3rd. This law, which ostensibly protects the free exercise of religion in the State from undue burdens levied by the government, turns out to be nothing more than a copy of the Federal law signed by President Clinton in 1993.[1]

The text of the law passed in Mississippi is vague at best:

 5)  (a)  Government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, except as provided in paragraph (b) of this subsection.
       (b) Government may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person:
                        (i) Is in the furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
(ii) Is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.[2]

The language of the bill (especially its early sections) is identical to the Federal law passed during the Clinton administration. Only the addition of “In God We Trust” to the State Seal of Mississippi makes this bill significantly different from what has been on the federal books for 20 years.

The Mississippi legislature passed a law that serves little purpose other than to gin up support for legislators from the already dominant conservative majority of the state. But this is what politicians do; they fight battles that make them seem like heroes to their supporters but that do little in the grand scheme of things for the state. I get that - it is the securing of political capital that can be spent on truly important issues and ideas in months to come.

So why all the angst over this bill? If the Act is merely a repeat of an already valid law, why are so many groups coming out in vocal support of or opposition to it?

This is a case of the clash between the political process in Mississippi (and everywhere else in America) and the evangelical-dominated church culture of the state. What was a symbolic action by the legislature was a “die on this hill” measure for some Christians, including a great many Baptists in the state.

The conflict came at the point in the bill’s life when it was introduced in the Mississippi Senate. In that young version of the Bill the term “burden” is defined as follows:

"Burden" means any action that directly or indirectly constrains, inhibits, curtails or denies the exercise of religion by any person or compels any action contrary to a person's exercise of religion.  "Burden" includes, but is not limited to, withholding benefits, assessing criminal, civil or administrative penalties or exclusion from governmental programs or access to governmental facilities.[3]

The troublesome clause is that anything that “compels any action contrary to a person’s exercise of religion” is considered a burden. This is certainly a bad definition, since it prohibits governmental recourse for anyone (which includes corporations since “corporations are people, my friend”) who denies services or refuses participation or work based upon their religion. It is this clause that deserved the ire of the LBGTQ community, the Jewish community, and any other group fearing discrimination by the overwhelmingly conservative Christian majority of Mississippi.

While this version of the Bill was being debated (it would be amended twice in its lifetime) the Mississippi Baptist Convention came out supporting it. Non-SBC pastors and Methodist ministers came out against this version of the Bill, too.[4] It is likely that these pressures to pass or kill the Bill did little to sway the legislature compared to the response from business leaders in Mississippi who removed their support for the measure so long as the controversial definition of “burden” was included.

Now that the Bill has passed in a form that is an uncontroversial as the Federal law already on the books, there is celebration from the SBC and pledges to repeal from the LBGTQ community.[5][6] But the thing they’re celebrating and demonizing ISN’T THE BILL THAT PASSED!

This is not a “we won, you lost” situation where the powers of Light and the advancement of the Kingdom of God defeated the hedonistic pagans of the darkness. Neither side won, neither side lost. This is just politics. But when the Christian community invests itself so heavily in the political process, a process that is designed to find common ground and to respond to the interests of the state, the outcome of this situation demand a celebration or a condemnation. We must chose sides and hold ground in such situations.

Unfortunately the Kingdom is the only thing not being advanced since Governor Bryant signed the Act. Instead we hear of Baptists crowing about “victory” as though anything was won or lost. Just like the politicians who have used Senate Bill 2681 as a prop in their campaigns to prove how conservative they are, the Baptists of our state are in great numbers claiming victory of some sort for truth or Jesus or something. A great many sermons will undoubtedly be preached on the great Kingdom win that the Act represents. Future campaigns to pass socially conservative legislation will remember this Bill as a victory and will use its success as momentum.

There is nothing to cheer about or mourn in the Act as it was signed, though. It is an empty statement that does not open the door to discrimination any more than the Federal law which it echoes. Any crowing or bemoaning at this point is purely political maneuvering.

In all of that, though, considering that the actual Act as signed into law is as harmless as Clinton’s 1993 Act, it seems that it’s all just politics; good-old Mississippi Baptist politics.


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