I am troubled by Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act [RFRA] for the obvious reason—that it is apparently going to be used to discriminate against people in the LGBT community [and who knows who else], But there' another, less discussed reason, too: RFRA represents another instance of the absurd special exemptions and preferences America grants to religion in general, and religious organizations and beliefs in particular.
Religious institutions don’t pay property taxes—even though many sit on some of the most valuable land in their communities. Our tax laws enable people who donate money to religious organizations to treat them as tax deductions. You can donate a chunk of land to a religious organization and take that as a tax deduction, too.
More subtly, we treat religious officials as though they have some kind of special moral authority and wisdom. We address them, in non-religious settings, with their religious titles. They receive special tax breaks [known as “parsonage”] on their income and church-supplied housing. We begin governmental meetings with prayers, and we invite clergy to lead them, thereby further institutionalizing a role for religion in our legal and political system.
All of this special treatment and—pardon the pun—reverence for religions, their beliefs and practices, and their anointed leaders–has become part of the fabric of American culture. Yes, I understand the primordial American impulse to protect religion—as a part of the founding principles of our country. But I am pretty sure that the founders did not intend for “protection” to evolve into what we have today: the elevation of religious belief above enlightened thought.
What I see in the RFRA is the radical notion—now institutionalized—that religious belief trumps everything—even the principles of fairness and equality. This law represents a major step backward, threatening to undo the hard-won battles for human rights that have helped America evolve into a more enlightened country.
And please note that in Indiana’s RFRA, it is implicit that the religious beliefs being protected are those of one religion only: Christianity—and possibly only fundamentalist Christianity. I doubt that the people who passed Indiana’s RFRA would want to apply its religious exemptions to people who have Muslim beliefs. That idea is not explicity stated in the law, but we all know that it’s there, between the lines.
The hypocrisy is, well, beyond belief. The same people who push for laws like the Orwellian-named RFRA claim that we are in danger of seeing Sharia law imposed on our country. Sharia law, in their view, would be a terrible thing: the imposition of radical, fundamentalist Christian beliefs, on the other hand, would be wonderful.
None of this is breaking news. We have been overtaken, politically, by radical right-wing notions, many of which have their basis in religious beliefs—and much of their support comes from politicians elected by people with radical religious beliefs.
There’s far too much emphasis, in our culture and in our politics, on prayer and belief, and not enough on evidence-based fact and rational thought. We would be a better society if scientific organizations and scientists received the same special exemptions and exaltation as religion.