Fulwider, 10-31-2015

Guest column: ‘Freedom’ bill turns religion into weapon

Fulwider, Bryan(Orlando Sentinel, October 31, 2015)

By Bryan Fulwider

The “religious freedom” bill gives people a free pass for discrimination.

In regard to religious freedom, I’m a huge fan. And as for the rule of law, count me in.

And if you want to talk about the Constitution, I’m a solid proponent of both its content and its wisdom. I would consider each of these credentials to be firmly on the “assets” portion of my strongly held beliefs ledger.

That being said, I am soundly in opposition to a bill recently filed with the Florida House of Representatives known as the Protection of Religious Freedom (House Bill 401).

You may wonder why a clergy person, such as I, would be opposed — and even strongly opposed — to legislation intended to protect religious freedom. Let me try to explain by outlining the three major components of this bill. In short, it states that based on personal religious belief, one can refuse the following:

• Health-care services.

• Services provided by small, family-owned businesses.

• Adoption services by privately owned adoption agencies.

There are several reasons for my opposition to this proposed legislation:

First, there’s the practical reason. Laws like this have been struck down and challenged in a number of places across the country; think Indiana. These kinds of laws require unnecessary expenditure of taxpayer money in an attempt to defend something, which in the end, turns out to be indefensible.

Actions that are often motivated by these kinds of laws turn out to be either unconstitutional or discriminatory, or both. Scarce and precious tax dollars should not be spent to defend a law that should never have been enacted in the first place.

Second, religious freedom is about protecting one’s personal practice of religion within both the home and the faith community. It does not give one the right to break laws in either the public sphere or in relation to one’s participation in commerce (business). Religious institutions and personal religious practice are protected in regard to free exercise and nonestablishment under the U.S. Constitution.

There is a massive body of case law that outlines both the breadth — and in some cases the limits — of those protections. However, the notion that religious freedom means that one can ignore either anti-discrimination laws or the constitutional protection provided to other citizens is absurd. Religious freedom, properly understood, is already well-protected by both the U.S. Constitution and the Florida Constitution.

Third, and most important, I oppose this proposed piece of legislation because it’s immoral. It turns religion into a weapon to be used against fellow citizens. It allows citizens, based on what are no doubt sincerely held religious beliefs, to withhold important goods, services and accommodations from other human beings simply because they offend religious sensibilities.

I grew up in the church, United Methodist to be specific. I’m a United Church of Christ pastor now. I was blessed to have loving and devoted parents — people of deep faith, themselves. They made sure I attended Sunday school and worship, read my Bible and participated in the youth group and other activities as a young person.

My life has been richly blessed in relation to my own personal faith. And the faith that has nurtured me all my life — and the kind of faith I have tried to encourage others to embrace — is based on the kind and generous spirit of Jesus.

Not for one moment do I believe that my faith would ever call me to withhold from others what should rightfully be theirs. It seems quite clear that this bill is intended to give certain religious folks a free pass for discrimination.

Perhaps it is aimed at the gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender community; or perhaps it intends to put Muslims on notice; or maybe it’s atheists or agnostics who would be the targets of this. The list could become quite long regarding those whom some religious folks would like to exclude from our daily activities in business and community.

To those religious people who believe this legislation is a good idea, I would encourage you to look at the deepest moorings, and the most profound insights of the faith you claim — surely they cannot tell you that discrimination against your fellow citizens is a good idea.

Bryan Fulwider is one of the Three Wise Guys on the Friends Talking Faith radio program on 90.7 WMFE FM (Tuesday nights at 6:30 pm), and chair of the executive committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.