Saturday, May 23, 2015

How I understand RFRAs (Religious Freedom Restoration Acts)

I started writing this post when lots of states were trying to pass Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. Then Indiana got smacked down and the issue seemed to go away...for awhile. It's back, in Louisiana, so I'm dusting off this blog post. Yet another chance to offend readers, yay.....

Proponents of RFRAs use the example of a kosher deli being required to sell a ham sandwich. This example is not accurate.

Kosher delis don't sell ham sandwiches. To ANYONE. And if they DID sell a ham sandwich to one person, then yes, the public accomodation law requires them to sell ham sandwiches to EVERYONE.

But let's go with the kosher deli example for awhile and see where an RFRA would take us.

You go into a kosher deli and ask for some pastrami. The deli is doing a brisk business in pastrami that day. But the deli owner refuses to sell it to you because you told him you were going to put it in a Reuben sandwich, which has cheese on it, and mixing meat and cheese is against the deli owner's religion.

You are shocked at his refusal. You think, what does that have to do with MY sandwich? Having meat with cheese is not against MY religion. Once I pay for it, it's my pastrami and I can do whatever I want with it. I could make a Lady Gaga meat dress out of it if I felt like it. It's none of his business what I do with that pastrami in the privacy of my own home. His job is only to sell me the damn pastrami, and there's no reason his religion should come between me and my sandwich.

I mean, it sounds a little crazy, right? That YOU can't be sold an item because your intended use of that item is against the business owner's religion? It's not like you're asking HIM to eat the sandwich or even be in the same room when YOU eat it. He's not participating in your lunch.

But let's put that aside for now.

You're a regular, non-litigious person, you don't like fights, and you believe a business owner has a right not to serve whomever he wants. So you leave the store, planning to get your pastrami elsewhere. No point in causing a fuss because one particular store owner is being weird,

Only it turns out, that deli's pastrami is SOOO good that every other deli, grocery store, and butcher shop in town has realized it can't compete and therefore has stopped selling pastrami. The only place that carries it within a 50-mile radius is the store that refuses to sell it to you.

So you don't get pastrami, big deal. You can make your Reuben with corned beef.

But it turns out the deli also has cornered the market on corned beef. And on roast beef. And on turkey and chicken. They don't sell pork products, but everyone in town is on a health kick and stopped buying pork, so stores stopped selling it. The only store in town selling any kind of meat is the deli.

That's okay. You've been meaning to try a vegetarian diet anyway.

But while you were driving around town looking for corned beef, the local grocery store went out of business. And the deli, making money hand-over-fist because of their excellent meat selection, has purchased the supermarket. The owner refuses to let you buy anything from the supermarket. Doing business with those who eat meat and cheese together in the same sandwich would be condoning that abominable and unhealthy lifestyle.

Well, now, this is getting a little inconvenient. You think about taking the owner to court, forcing him to sell you lunch meat, but you have no case. People who eat meat and cheese together are not a Federally protected class, and they're not protected by the state or local governments, either.

You consider lying, telling him  you've given up putting cheese on your meat sandwiches. You could actually stop eating meat and cheese together in the same sandwich. I mean, it's a choice, right? No one is BORN eating meat and cheese sandwiches. You have to be taught how to make a Reuben. And yes, it's not the healthiest food in the universe.

But if you're an adult, why not be able to make a sandwich without needing the acceptance of the business owner who is selling you the ingredients? It's your life. If you want to clog your arteries, that should be your choice.

You start to order your food from websites and soon your fridge is stocked with all the pastrami, swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing you can handle. Life is good. Until a knock comes on the door....

The deli owner, who has just purchased your apartment complex, doesn't mean to harass you. He's sure you're a very nice person and has nothing against you or your kind. It's just that your meat-and-cheese eating lifestyle is such an abomination in his eyes. It goes against his sincerely held religious beliefs to stand by and allow someone to do that on his property. It's practically the same as if HE  were the one eating meat and cheese. So you have two weeks to vacate the premises.

It's getting hard to believe that he only hates meat-and-cheese sandwiches and not you.

You find a new apartment, stock your new fridge with pastrami and swiss cheese, and settle in. You're a little short on cash due to the security deposit and the shipping costs for the pastrami, but you'll make that up with your next paycheck. But the next day your supervisor calls you into his office. Turns out the deli has gone conglomerate and purchased your company. And the sandwiches you bring into the office (and consume at home in your off-time) are an offense to the new owner's religious sensibilities. No one else in the company feels the need to eat that sort of thing, especially not in public. To continue to employ you would be like condoning your lifestyle. You are let go with a generous severance package.

It's only a matter of time before your new apartment is bought up by the deli owner or one of his friends, so you spend the next two weeks using up all the Reuben sandwich ingredients in your fridge and packing your belongings, and then you leave town. As you drive away, you begin to wonder if that was actually the point of whole game: to get you to move away so the townspeople could have a "nice" community with no "undesirables". You may never know, but it doesn't matter. You're already on your way out.


Okay, yeah, that was a worst-case scenario. But we need to understand that these RFRA laws do not protect religious minorities from discrimination by the majority -- that's what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does. RFRAs protect the majority from having to serve a member of an "undesirable" minority group. An RFRA means that if someone wanted to do all those things in the scenario above, they could, and face no legal repercussions.

The slimiest thing about these RFRA laws is their timing. It's not a coincidence that they're popping up in every state with a Republican-majority legistlature. They're the product of anti-gay groups and intended as a pre-enptive strike if the Supreme Court rules for marriage equality in June, so business owners can "practice their religion" by turning away gay couples.

Most business owners just want to run their businesses and make money, which, after all, is the point of business. Many state legislatures saw the epic backlash Indiana has experienced after passing their RFRA and are now backtracking from their plan to pass an RFRA. Many, but not all. So in the words of Mad-eye Moody, "Constant Vigilance!" We must call out these RFRAs for what they are -- not protections for religion, but licenses to discriminate. And that's unacceptable in the 21st century.

~ end rant! ~

BTW, I make an awesome fake reuben with no pastrami at all because I stopped eating meat a few years ago. (I do put meat in the DH's sandwich if I remember to get some.) Saute red peppers and sweet onions, then slightly dry out the sauerkraut in the pan when the peppers and onions are done (or at the end of the sauteing time). Layer swiss cheese (and somestimes cheddar, too) and the other ingredients on bread one kind of mustard, then another layer of cheese, then the top piece of bread with a second kind of mustard. No butter or oil on the outside, and no Russian dressing inside, so it's healthy! (Pay no attention to the four pounds of cheese....)

[subject line edited on 3/18/2016]

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