Center for Interfaith Cooperation

Hoosiers of Many Faiths in Community

CIC board members quoted in Indy Star story about RFRA

From Indianapolis Star, April 3 2015, p. 8A

“Battle shows split in faiths, ” Marisa Kwiatkowski and Robert King ()

The fight over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act comes down to an argument that’s as old as the First Amendment — how to balance the free exercise of religion with preservation of basic human rights.

Religious leaders who favored the original “religious freedom” law said it was about protecting people from being forced to engage in activities that violate their conscience and their faith.

Religious leaders opposed to the law saw it as unnecessary and a violation of the core tenet of their beliefs — that all people should be treated with dignity and respect.

The uproar spurred Indiana legislators to amend the law to alleviate concerns that it could allow discrimination based on sexual orientation in communities that prohibited it.

The Rev. Larry Gember, who supported the “religious freedom” law in its original form, said he is concerned that the changes passed Thursday weaken its intended purpose.

Gember, lead pastor of St. James Lutheran in Greenfield, stood behind Gov. Mike Pence in the signing ceremony photo that became an Internet meme.

For him, the religious freedom law was never about discrimination. Instead, he said he was concerned that businesses might be pushed to provide contraceptive care as part of their health insurance or that wedding photographers could be forced to shoot pictures at same-sex weddings, when such actions contradict their beliefs.

“I’m just praying — and a lot of my pastor friends are as well — that this won’t weaken and end up discriminating against religious people in the name of protecting our gay brothers and sisters,” Gember said.

For the Rev. Darren Cushman Wood of North United Methodist Church on the Northside the “RFRA is the latest incarnation of intolerance, cloaked in the language of ‘freedom.’ ” “Legally it accomplishes nothing in terms of protecting religious freedom, which is protected by the Constitution and best adjudicated through the courts,” Cushman Wood wrote in an email to The Star. “Socially, it has already created unnecessary divisions and economic distress. It brings out the worst in us as Hoosiers.”

Edgar Hopida, communications director for the Islamic Society of North America, said the law created “a hornet’s nest of discrimination.”

“This is a very troubling trend that we’re seeing,” he said. “Certain segments of our government or society are using cherished values in our country — freedom of religion or freedom to bear arms — to try to use that blanket or veil for political ends, which in the end hurts society in general.”

David Sklar, director of government affairs for the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council, said his organization has opposed RFRA from the beginning. He said it doesn’t offer more protection and could create confusion for minority religious communities.

KP Singh, an interfaith leader and a spokesman for the Sikh community, said Indiana needs to be inclusive. He said restaurants have refused to serve him and a landlord wouldn’t rent an apartment to him.

“I know discrimination firsthand,” Singh said. “It’s not pleasant, and it’s not good.”

Bishop Bill Gafkjen, of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said religious freedom is not the freedom to get other people to live the way they think people should live.

“I was concerned that it was a way for individuals to impose their own religious moral codes on others by not serving them or not treating them like any other customer or person,” he said.

While many religious leaders, including Gafkjen, told The Star that legislators’ proposed changes to the RFRA are a step in the right direction, others disagree.

The Indiana Catholic Conference thought the original law struck a “proper balance.” The organization issued a statement Thursday expressing concern about changes to the law.

“Defending the dignity of all people means both upholding religious freedom and opposing unjust discrimination,” the statement said. “People of faith should not be coerced to violate their conscience in their daily lives.”

Ron Johnson, pastor at Living Stones Church in Crown Point, went a step further.

“It sounds like it creates a special status for the gay and lesbian community,” Johnson said. “They already have equality under the law and under the constitution. It puts sexual orientation on the same level as the color of one’s skin. And those two things are apples and oranges. One is an immutable characteristic and the other one is a sexual choice, and you can’t do that.”

Johnson said he was disappointed legislators gave in to public and economic pressure.

“It is ironic that on Holy Week, when Jesus was betrayed for 30 pieces of silver, we are watching our Republican leadership betray the Hoosier people to big business and corporate thuggery,” he said.

All of the religious leaders interviewed by The Star agreed on one thing: The conversation isn’t finished.

“One of the prayers I have is that in time, with a great deal of love and patience, I think we as Americans will work things out,” Singh said.

Call Star reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski at (317) 444-6135. Follow her on .

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