Religious Freedom or Discrimination?

04/02/2015 03:42 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

For the past several days, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has found himself at the center of a political firestorm over his state's adoption of a new Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Many people, including many in the faith community, believe that Indiana's law went too far, because it could have opened the door for businesses to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Pence has repeatedly denied this was the intent -- and early Thursday morning, Indiana's Republican leaders announced a deal that they say would make it clear no one will "be able to discriminate against anyone at any time." Read the changes here. The new anti-discrimination language has already drawn a positive response from some of the original law's critics.

Of course, the debate continues, as those on one side say the clarification doesn't go far enough, and those on the other say that it was an unnecessary concession. We see the RFRA debate extending to other states, like Arkansas, where, amid concerns from Walmart and his own son, Gov. Asa Hutchinson last night said he wouldn't sign the pending religious freedom legislation until it mirrors the federal law -- taking a note from the Indiana dust-up.

The dangerous part of the original Indiana law was that by including businesses in RFRA protections, it went further than other state RFRA laws and could even give permission for discrimination.

Martin Luther King Jr. made this insightful distinction between the private and public domains:

I think there is a great difference between the two ... I don't think anybody should have the right to just come in my house that I may privately own.... But now if I turn my house into a store -- if I turn it into a department store, if I turn it into a lunch counter, or anything like that -- then I have certain obligations to the public beyond my particular whims ... If a business is in the public market, then it cannot deny access .... [a business owner] should not have the freedom to choose his customers on the basis of race or religion.

The federal RFRA law of 1993, which Arkansas' Hutchinson hopes to better emulate, was bipartisan, sponsored by Utah Republican Orrin Hatch and Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy. It has been successfully used to protect a wide range of people -- Native Americans, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others -- in the free exercise of their religious convictions. People of faith from across the political spectrum rightly believe such legislation is necessary, as threats to religious liberty have come from governments on both the right and the left, and even from otherwise democratic governments in increasingly "secularized" societies. Other states have adopted similar laws, as the federal law doesn't apply to states.

To their great credit, business leaders, church leaders, and thousands of ordinary citizens across the country rose up in protest to Indiana's original RFRA law. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) already pulled its 2017 convention from the state in protest. The NCAA, which expressed concern about how their student athletes, employees and attendees to the men's basketball Final Four this weekend in Indianapolis might be affected, responded positively to the new anti-discrimination language.

Religious liberty is critically important and, yes, threatened. RFRA was originally passed to prevent things like governments and school boards prohibiting student faith groups from meeting after school in their own public schools, or forcing a Native American kindergarten boy to cut his long hair because of school "grooming standards." But the Indiana law was different. And the strong public reaction against it also comes from people who believe in the protection of religious liberty, but not in ways that use it to condone discrimination in the public sphere against anyone.

Christian beliefs regarding homosexuality and same-sex marriage are complex, dynamic, evolving, and clearly generational. Conversations -- always necessary but sometimes painful -- are happening in churches across the country about civil rights, human dignity, and what the Bible says. But whether churches choose to welcome and affirm gay or lesbian Christians in their own congregations and religious practices, there can be no room for public-sanctioned discrimination based upon who people are.

The central question Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was repeatedly asked should also be a question that Christians should be asked -- regardless of their theological positions about homosexuality and gay marriage: "Should gay and lesbian people be discriminated against in society?" Despite religious differences on internal beliefs and practices, the question about whether discrimination against gay and lesbian people in the public square is legitimate should be answered with a resounding "no."

Jim Wallis is the president of Sojourners. His book The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God's Side, is available now.