Indiana's RFRA May Help End Bigotry

04/17/2015 01:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015

The latest news out of Indiana shows Governor Mike Pence's popularity taking a big hit, with a recent poll conducted by Bellwether Research putting Pence's approval rating at 45 percent, down from 62 percent in February. The decline has been linked to the state's implementation of the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Pence signed into law in March, and which gives individuals and businesses the ability to refuse service to people based on a "person's exercise of religion." In other words, if a business owner believes that homosexuality is a religious violation, he can choose not to serve a gay customer.

The Act has, perhaps unsurprisingly, generated a firestorm of controversy. For one thing, it seems completely unconstitutional -- government-condoned discrimination -- although proponents argue that the law is, in fact, reclamation of the First Amendment in that it protects freedom of religion. Celebrities and politicians across the country have come out in vehement opposition to the Act, while a majority of Indiana voters canvassed by the Bellwether Research poll said the bill was "not needed."

And yet: What if the law isn't such a bad idea, after all?

Of course, I'm not advocating for bigotry. And as a straight white woman, I've certainly not faced the most extreme forms of prejudice, though -- as a woman -- I certainly have not been exempt. Broadly, I agree that service businesses open to the public should be required to let anyone who walks in the door buy their product; that owners should not be allowed to pick and choose customers based on their own personal preferences, or prejudices.

But while Indiana's Act, and others like it, allow businesses to discriminate, they also allow consumers to discriminate -- and this is powerful. Chances are very good that we all do business with owners who are bigoted, or racist, or who don't believe in a woman's right to choose. By and large, we don't know about those beliefs. But what if we did? Would we reconsider patronizing those businesses?

I would. And so, I think, would most people. Just look at the backlash after the president of Chick-fil-A made those anti-gay comments. Or at the campaign to get Whole Foods and other grocers to drop Eden Foods after the CEO of the organic food company canceled coverage of birth control from employees' health care plans "in accordance with his Catholic faith."

While a gay couple in Indiana, or anywhere else, in the middle of planning a wedding may be dismayed to learn that the caterer of their dreams harbors animosity for gays and lesbians, might they not prefer to have that information -- and, thus, be able to decide whether they might be more comfortable doing business elsewhere? Isn't, as the saying goes, the devil you know better than the devil you don't? In the words of one gay friend, "I'd rather have all the information up front. If a business owner lumps me in with murderers and pedophiles, I'd probably prefer they weren't the one helping me run an intricate, life-highlight-level event."

There's a very good argument to be made for allowing businesses to convey that they would rather do business with only certain types of people, be it Christians, babies born only in wedlock, or brunettes. Both the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the opposition to it are based in the belief that everyone has the right to live by his own beliefs, even if those beliefs are ones driven by fear or hatred. The more information we have, the more equipped we all are -- whether we are business owners or consumers -- to make the best decision according to our personal belief system.

Furthermore, there's the practical matter that forcing people to act against their bigoted views isn't the way to end bigotry. Racism, homophobia, the refusal to regard women as equals -- these beliefs will only end if we keep talking about why and how they're problematic, and force those who hold them to own them -- and face the consequences. Laws that allow people to keep their prejudices to themselves aren't helping anyone. Some Indiana business owners may choose to hide behind the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and they may experience a backlash because of it. Mean-spiritedness, after all, is generally pretty bad for business.