My rights and your beliefs

I am a writer. Words are important to me. I get annoyed – even angry – when they are hijacked and strung into phrases that obscure or even change their meanings for political purposes. The “Patriot Act” has nothing to do with being a patriot – at least not in a country where we are supposed to have a right to privacy – but it has everything to do with broadly expanding the power of law enforcement, to the point of citizens being presumed guilty until found innocent.

The “Death Tax,” which the Senate is once again starting to holler about, is not a tax on death. It is a tax on estates – but only a few, very special ones. The federal estate tax is a tax on the wealthiest of the wealthy – it taxes the estates of people whose estates exceed $5.43 million dollars per person. This turns out to be about two people in every 1,000. It is the most progressive part of the United States tax code.

Now comes the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” The Religious Freedom Restoration Act has little or nothing to do with restoring religious freedom. It has everything to do with restoring bigotry.

And let’s be clear, I am using the Merriam-Webster definition of bigotry: “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices, especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.”

Short history lesson: The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed in 1993, says that “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”

The Indiana law says the same thing. All well and good. The federal law and the Indiana law are also in agreement about exceptions – the government shall not substantially burden a person except “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

But where the federal law considers a person to be a human being, the Indiana law extends personhood to people, churches, and for-profit corporations. That doesn’t seem so bad, right? Well, under federal law, a person who feels that their religious expression has been burdened can claim that as a defense in a judicial proceeding. They can sue the government, essentially. But in Indiana, the law has been extended so that it doesn’t matter if the government is involved. They can use that defense anytime. So, basically, the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows anyone (corporation, nonprofit, church, and actual human being) to assert that their religious principles are being violated without having to have a government involved. In essence, the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act can be used as a defense by a private company to discriminate against anyone (person, company, non-profit) for a “religious” reason. Most of the religious reasons in Indiana seem to be concerning gay marriage.

I support every person’s right to marry the person they love – or don’t love, for that matter. It’s a right, not a privilege reserved only for those who believe a certain way. I’ve been an attendant at many weddings, but I’ve been the “Best Woman” at more gay weddings than straight or crooked ones, for that matter. I feel strongly that love is love. Being gay or straight is not a choice – it is innate. (Just ask yourself: Did you choose to be straight or gay? If so, you can choose to switch teams, right?)

People should have a right to exercise their religious beliefs. That said, practicing a religion is not the same as refusing service to someone because of their sexuality or ethnicity or hair color. Discrimination is not excused due to spiritual belief.

Years ago, I attended a writer’s workshop in Iowa, where I made friends with folks from all over the country. One, Terry, was from Bayside, Queens. We stayed in touch, and my friend Terry would call me whenever New Hampshire made the news – particularly political news. When New Hampshire voted same-sex marriage into law, she called in disbelief.

“Who’d have thought you guys would beat us to the punch?”

“Live free or die, babe,” I answered.

If this state stands for anything, it is for the fierce belief that we have a right to do what we want in our private lives.

And my rights don’t end where your religious beliefs begin.

June Lemen is a freelance writer from Nashua. Email her at june@junelemen.com.