Except on this Web site, hardly a word has been said or written about the fact that Rhode Island has a religious freedom law on the books very much like the one in Indiana that has proven so (quote-unquote) controversial. That’s actually pretty surprising, inasmuch as the General Assembly promoted a press release with the title, “Sen. Nesselbush blasts Indiana over discrimination, urges businesses to relocate to Rhode Island.” You’d think journalists would pick up on the fact that Nesselbush’s proclamation requires some caveats, if it isn’t simply an expression of ignorance.
Ian Donnis, of Rhode Island Public Radio was one exception, with his Friday blog-style post, but it’s a peculiar exercise in contrasts:
In contrast to the proposed religious freedom law that generated national headlines from Indiana this week, Rhode Island’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been a non-issue since it became law in 1993.
I had a few uncomfortable exchanges with Donnis on Twitter, because this item on his post goes on to present the substantive contrast of the laws as one of intent. As I put it on Twitter, “What’s the point? If you want to protect religious freedom, you have to do it when it serves the progressive cause?”
In Donnis’s post, Steve Brown, of the far-left RI-ACLU, explains that “the purpose” of Rhode Island’s law was to protect religious minorities, typically those with dark skin. (I interpreted some cynicism in that paraphrase.) Given the probable points of view of Brown and like-minded activists, it’s difficult not to conclude, as I suggested this morning, that the Left considers laws to be conditional to its own purposes.
Rhode Island’s religious freedom act was meant to protect certified minorities in the name of popular causes. That is “in contrast” to Indiana’s law, which activists attack because it protects white Christians against a popular cause. (Otherwise, the story would be that Rhode Island’s “non-issue” suggests that left-wing activists are being deceptive and unreasonable about Indiana’s version.)
If you want an interesting contrast, by the way, look to Andrew McCarthy, who takes the view of a prosecutor worried that religious freedom can become a cover for terrorist organization. McCarthy also worries that such laws as Rhode Island’s and Indiana’s err in giving unaccountable judges the power to determine what a “compelling public purpose” is and whether a particular policy is the “least burdensome” possibility for achieving it.
McCarthy’s procedural objection would be difficult to address, unless the idea would be for legislators to lay out very specific boundaries for freedom of religion, rather than allowing judges to consider actual circumstances for the individual cases that come before them. Whatever the case, we should consider backing off a bit in allowing government to step into the interpersonal balances of our lives.
From my point of view in Rhode Island, where the rule of law seems more like a legal fiction than a reality, the branch that interprets the language is irrelevant if the only thing that matters, ultimately, is what the current progressive talking point might be.