Below is my Sunday column in the Washington Post on Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Within minutes of the signing of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a chorus of condemnation arose across the country that threw Indiana Governor Mike Pence and his colleagues back on their heels. The response was understandable, though somewhat belated. After all, both Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama supported similar language that is found not only in federal law but the laws of 19 other states. While broader than most of these laws, the premise of the Indiana law was the same: citizens could raise religious beliefs as a defense to governmental obligations or prohibitions.
For those of us who have been warning for years about the collision of anti-discrimination laws and religious beliefs, the current controversy was a welcomed opportunity to have this long-avoided debate. Yet, we are still not having that debate. Instead, there is a collective agreement that discrimination is wrong without addressing the difficult questions of where to draw the line between the ban on discrimination and the right to free speech and free exercise. That includes the question of why only religious speech should be protected in such conflicts, as noted in the column. Yet, there is a reluctance of acknowledge good faith concerns among religious people in fear of being viewed as bigoted.
There has been a great deal of heated rhetoric in this discussion that avoids many of the more difficult questions. For example there is the common criticism that these bakers cannot assert their religious beliefs when it is really their business that is being required to take certain actions. However, last year, the Supreme Court in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. expressly found that such businesses do have religious rights (as they do speech rights, as recognized in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission). In 2014, the Court ruled that “no conceivable definition of the term includes natural persons and nonprofit corporations, but not for-profit corporations.” Likewise, despite arguments that the federal RFRA is narrower because it references only conflicts with the government (and not other private parties in the Indiana law), some courts have ruled that it can be used in civil litigation.
As expected, the response of some commentators was to condemn even raising these question of free speech by saying that it saying that it equates gay couples to the KKK or Nazi sympathizers. Even when admitting that they do not have an answer for the free speech question, the attack is on the raising of such questions. There are legitimate concerns over allowing businesses to refuse to prepare products deemed offensive due to symbols or language, but we cannot really address these issues if people are denounced for just raising the conflicts and discussing conflicts. It results in a circular position that we can discuss the question of the protection of offensive speech but not if the question is offensive to discuss. This is an unfortunate trend where difficult questions are avoided by attacking those raising them as presumptive racists or homophobes etc for even raising different types of speech or views. It is a rather odd position to be placed in given my writings for decades supporting gay rights and same sex marriage. More importantly, when discussing the limits of free speech, one necessarily discusses the broad spectrum of free speech examples, including offensive speech. There is not an effort to equate gay marriage symbols or language with anti-Semitimic symbols or language. Obviously, as a supporter of same-sex marriage, I reject that notion. However, the point is that some people hold opposing views from my own. Some of those views I find deeply offensive. If we want to discuss the growing limitations on speech, we need to explore the spectrum of different forms of speech. That is what CNN did in the interview when raising the “KKK cake.” CNN was not saying that such a view is equally valid on the merits. It is ridiculous to say that, by discussing what different people consider offensive, we are saying that all of those views are valid or correct. It is not enough to say that such people are simply wrong or there is clearly a difference in the “real” offensiveness of the messages. Indeed, in some ways, such critics are answering the question by saying that some views are simply not viable because they are wrong. That is saying that society will draw the line on what speech can be the basis for refusing services and what cannot be such a basis.
The column below raises the question of line drawing and states that I would prefer an absolute rule requiring all services. However, I could not support such a rule if we are going to strip protection from “wrong” views while allowing others to refuse on the ground that other symbols or language are clearly offensive. One variation on the “No Cake For You” approach below was suggested by a colleague who said that we could allow bakers and others to refuse any offensive language — religious or non-religious — unless the government could show that the baker would have sold the cake but for the status of the prospective buyer (e.g., gay or straight, Jewish or not, etc.). Thus, as long as the basis of the refusal was the actual language or symbols, it would be protected as an expressive act.
As I say in the column, I continue to struggle with drawing this line. None of the options are particularly satisfying. However, I do think that we have to have a real dialogue on this issue free of low-grade efforts to those on the other side as bigoted for wanting to discuss the range of free speech conflicts. The point is that, when dealing with the question of the right to refuse to create offensive symbols or language, one must address the fact that there are a wide array of such conflicts that can arise among different religious, cultural, or political groups. One does not have to agree with their speech to raise the question of their right to engage in such speech. Indeed, the first amendment is designed to protect unpopular speech. We do not need it to protect popular speech. Some may ultimately decided that no business can refuse any message under the “Let Them Eat Cake” approach despite rulings like Hobby Lobby and Citizens United. However, the first step is to have the debate, preferably free of personal attacks or attempts to silence those who would raise the speech of other unpopular or offensive groups.