By Miles King
Editor’s Note: Miles King, a student at Wauwatosa East High School in Milwaukee, Wisc., writes about the efforts to protect religious freedom that he sees in his school district and state. His essay placed third in AU’s 2020 Student Essay Contest, winning a $500 prize. You can learn more about the contest and the other finalists here. Check back to read the second-place essay on tomorrow’s blog!
On March 26, 2015, then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law. The language of the bill seemed innocent enough: a government entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion unless the government can prove that it has a compelling reason for doing so. Yet, it quickly became clear that the bill had an underlying purpose. “Despite the name, its purpose was not to ‘restore' religious freedom; after all, religious freedom is already guaranteed in the Constitution,” former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg later wrote. “The bill’s actual purpose, its sponsors would later reveal, was to legalize discrimination.”
By preventing government intervention, the bill indirectly allowed companies, landlords and employers to refuse service to LGBTQ people across Indiana. The RFRA faced immediate criticism across the nation. Five former Indiana governors denounced the bill; the NCAA threatened to drop Indiana as a venue for future events; CEOs of hundreds of major companies – including Tim Cook (Apple), Max Levchin (PayPal), Jeremy Stoppelman (Yelp) and Warren Buffet (Berkshire Hathaway) – issued statements expressing their frustration with the state.
Pence stood firm in his support of the law, and the public backlash only worsened. By the time a bill intended to protect LGBTQ customers, employees and tenants was signed into law, Indiana’s economic and social damages were irreparable. Indianapolis alone was estimated to have lost over $60 million in business, and, according to The Indianapolis Star, Pence consequently spent “$365,000 of taxpayers’ money to repair the damage to the state’s reputation.”
This is not the first time that religiously motivated legislation has sparked controversy. Across the country, politicians have used “religious freedom” as a guise to infringe on the rights of LGBTQ people, religious minorities, women and more. These actions have imposed on the separation of church and state and threatened the right to freedom of religion and from religion, as guaranteed in the First Amendment. Separation of church and government, an indispensable pillar of American democracy, prevents the cultural majority from imposing their religious beliefs on others. In doing so, it enables individuals of all faiths to practice their religion without having to sacrifice rights and protections entitled to everyone. Protecting religious freedom is not a Catholic, Jewish, Muslim or secular issue – it is a civil rights issue.
In order to preserve separation of church and state, representatives must never use their religious convictions to justify infringing on the rights of others. There are protections in place in my community to ensure that individuals of all religious affiliation are treated equally under the law. The Wauwatosa School District, my local public school system, prohibits district employees from discriminating based on students’ religious preferences (among other things) under Code 5550 of their handbook. Furthermore, under Code 5223, the district allows parents to excuse their students for up to “180 minutes per week to obtain religious instruction outside of school.” Over time, as the Wauwatosa community has become more diverse, local officials have worked to remove theistic symbols from our city seal and public buildings.
On the state level, Wisconsin upholds the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause in Article I, Section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution, which prohibits the government from interfering with religious worship. The 1973 Supreme Court case Wisconsin v. Yoder, which held that Amish children are not required to be schooled past eighth grade because of their beliefs, also set a precedent for limited government interference in Wisconsin going forward. The court ruled that parents’ fundamental right to freedom of religion outweighs the state’s interest in educating their children.
Despite various protections of religion and free exercise on the local, state and federal levels, we still have a long way to go in achieving religious equity; after all, lawmakers will continue to try and undermine these existing protections, and people will continue to generalize and make assumptions about groups different from themselves.
To truly have religious freedom, we must strive for mutual understanding. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, “Americans who personally know someone in a religious group different from their own or who have some knowledge about that group are more likely to have positive feelings about that group than those who don't.” The results of this survey make one thing clear: Lawmaking alone will not secure religious freedom in the United States.
It is more important than ever before to educate Americans on religious groups around the world, and my community has taken steps to assimilate and integrate these diverse religions. Local churches, synagogues, mosques and temples (including First Congregational Church, my church) are beginning to hold collaborative workshops to enhance understanding and religious tolerance. By exploring the customs and history of other religions, participants are already making our community a more accepting place. Faith-based organizations serve a number of important functions in our communities, and it is important to let followers practice their faith freely and equally.
Contrary to the beliefs of Vice President Pence and numerous other lawmakers, the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment don’t solely apply to one religion; they apply to all. Religious freedom is essential in preserving America’s diversity, and we must continue to protect the right of religious minorities to exercise their faith without fear of legal or social repercussions. Even though religious freedom is just one component of the larger fight for equality in America, it is a critical one. Our generation of post-millennials, which is on track to be the most diverse generation in American history, has a choice to make: We can choose to accept these injustices and a political landscape filled with divisiveness, or we can come together, accept our differences, and inspire an America that welcomes everyone.