Yesterday, American Library Association (ALA) President Courtney Young issued a statement about the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" (RFRA) approved by the Indiana General Assembly, and signed by Governor Mike Pence. Since that action, Indiana has come under a lot of fire.
President Young's comments are right on, in my view. But I find myself wondering just what this law is supposed to do. Why is it needed?
Thus far, these are the cases I've heard of where people feel their religious faith compels them to deny service to someone:
- a Knights of Columbus group doesn't want to rent its hall for a gay wedding.
- a pharmacist doesn't want to sell birth control pills to an unmarried woman.
- a cake decorator doesn't want to make a cake for a gay wedding.
- a photographer doesn't want to take pictures of a gay wedding.
You can't help but notice that three of the four are about denying commercial services to gay people. Discrimination appears to be the point. I'd be curious to hear other examples.
None of these, please note, requires a minister of a faith opposed to gay weddings to conduct one. The state isn't telling religion what it must do. I'll even grant that the K of C is a religious group, and might well want to refuse to rent its hall for something else that violated a longstanding cause it espoused -- a request to host a pro-choice rally, for instance.
But the other cases seem intended only to deny services freely provided (as commercial services) to others, but deliberately withheld from a targeted class. For instance, pharmacists sell a host of drugs to customers. We shouldn't have to justify our lifestyles, or seek the approval of every store clerk every time we buy something from the open market. It's for sale or it isn't. The state isn't requiring religious people to buy products they don't use, or object to.
And I wonder: are religious beliefs and the right to honor one's conscience restricted to Christians? May Muslim taxi drivers refuse rides to women untended by male relatives? Does the state become the defender of religious condemnation, however that judgment is bolstered by scripture of whatever provenance? To put it another way, do civic institutions owe their allegiance to a host of religious texts, or to the Constitution?
Here's what I think ALA should do, in addition to a statement to our own members. I think we should write an open letter to the governor, and send it to key Indiana newspapers. It happens that ALA has scheduled its 2021 midwinter conference for Indianapolis. We should point out that our association has many members who are gay, and who now question whether they might be targeted as unfit for hotel or restaurant or health services consumption. That knowledge is likely to affect our attendance - and we depend upon that attendance for our own budgets.
We know that our contribution to a local economy is significant. When I go to an ALA conference - I attended a library conference in Indianapolis last year, as it happens, and enjoyed it very much - I wind up pumping at least $1,000 into hotels, restaurants, and transport. Our conferences pull 8,000 to 40,000 people to a town; an ALA conference has to be worth at least millions of dollars. Canceling is expensive for us - but our association also doesn't wish to be compelled to support values we abhor, particularly when it is our own members who would be actively discriminated against.
From our perspective, Indiana has broken faith with a fundamental American social contract: the idea that all people will be treated equally, if not with equal courtesy and respect (and wouldn't that be nice!), then at least with equal access to the public marketplace. If that is NOT the intent of the Indiana legislature and the Governor, then either repeal the RFRA, adopt explicit anti-discrimination laws to protect all of our members, or kiss our business goodbye.