Indiana tries the “freedom of religion” ruse

The Thinker by Rodin

States are starting to learn that while they have the power to legislate against people they don’t like, it’s generally not a good idea to use it.

The latest case in point, of course, is the State of Indiana. Its governor Mike Pence recently unwisely signed into law a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”. It essentially gives both individuals and businesses the “freedom” to tell someone they don’t like to piss off in the name of their freedom of religion. Interviewed Sunday, Governor Pence poorly tried to defend the law. He claimed it was misunderstood, and that it was virtually the same as a 1993 federal freedom of religion law with the same name.

The federal law was never intended to allow organizations to discriminate based on freedom of religion. However, the Supreme Court has had some interesting interpretations of the law. In 2006 it ruled that the law did not apply to the states, so it is curious that Pence would use the federal law to defend his state’s law. And in 2014 it ruled in the case of the Affordable Care Act that it allowed “closely held corporations” to not include contraceptive coverage in their employee health insurance plans. Presumably this logic was okay because earlier in its widely reviled Citizens United decision, the court decided that since earlier courts had declared corporations were people then corporations could not be prohibited from giving unlimited sums of money to political campaigns because free speech could not be constrained.

At best, Indiana’s law is distantly related to the federal law. Indiana’s new law is allowing anyone including any corporation, business or institution to declare that its religious freedom gives it the right to deny service to anyone that it finds violate their religious beliefs. This is in effect anything they choose to declare as a religious belief. The primary targets of the law, as documented by the photos of bigots behind the Governor Pence when he signed the law, are anticipated to be gays, lesbians and transgender people. Essentially the law is a license to discriminate collectively by both individuals and non-governmental organizations under the guise of freedom of religion.

The howls of protest were immediate and appear to be unrelenting. Angie’s List is one business threatening to move out of the state. Apple CEO Tim Cook decried the law in a Washington Post editorial today. Connecticut won’t let its employees travel to Indiana because it doesn’t want to even indirectly be associated with their bigotry. The NCAA is wishing it had time to move the Final Four playoffs to a different city. These are just some of the most notable responses to the law. There are plenty of others easy enough to find if you scan the news.

While Indiana is hardly the only red state to pass a law like this (Arkansas recently enacted something similar, and is getting a backlash), the track record for these laws suggests only foolish states would pass laws like these. You may recall that Arizona passed its own version of this law a few years back, to howls of protests and a huge loss of business. Eventually, they saw the light and repealed the law. It’s not hard to predict that within a few weeks Indiana is likely to do the same. No matter how right they think they are in their convictions, the national scorn and more importantly the loss of economic opportunity in the state will force a change of heart. Right now there is talk of an amendment to the law, which probably won’t change its substance or satisfy any of its critics.

In general, red states seem to be continually refighting the Civil War, just via its state legislatures, and this Indiana law is the latest skirmish. It all comes down to one thing: they think certain “better” people have license to make the “worse” people miserable. Their successes are principally a result of the tacit or explicit approval by the Supreme Court when these laws come up for review. One recent success was the court’s overturning of aspects of the Civil Rights Act that required federal approval of voting laws in principally southern states. The rest of America, and actually much of the south itself, has rejected bigotry. The reason many southern states haven’t caught on is because voting districts are so heavily gerrymandered that the citizens cannot speak with sufficient force.

Aside from the obvious bigotry, what drives most of us nuts about Indiana’s law is that these legislatures don’t understand that your freedom of religion does not give you the right to restrict other’s freedoms. Freedom doesn’t work that way. In fact, this is the antithesis of actual freedom. If you can allow a baker to not sell a wedding cake to a gay couple because it is against his religious beliefs as he interprets it, the same baker could refuse to sell one to a mixed race couple using a similar rationalization. A closely held bus corporation could say that their religion requires blacks to sit on the back of the bus, or to not allow any blacks on their buses. God is telling them so! “Freedom of religion” could selectively trump any sort of public law, which would render these laws unenforceable. Yet a law must apply uniformly or it is not a law. Instead it becomes no more than a hope that everyone will play nice.

Certainly freedom gives everyone the right to be a bigot. No one can control what you believe, although law can regulate your actions. Employers cannot discriminate in employment based on lots of criteria including sex and race and that includes closely held corporations with deeply religious CEOs like Hobby Lobby.

What’s clearly going on is that freedom of religion is being used as a proxy to effectively change laws that otherwise could only be changed via a process of law. If we really want to deny blacks their voting rights, it has to be done legally. And our Supreme Court apparently believes onerous voter ID laws are constitutional exercises in the legitimate power of the state because it’s not 1960 anymore. It thus effectively legalized bigotry in that instance.

In reality, no state or jurisdiction has the right to pass any legislation that exempts anyone from uniform application of the law. It’s so important we created a constitutional amendment specifically to require this: the 14th amendment. Legally it is clear: the 14th amendment specifically applies to all the states, which means that if a state grants the freedom to one group to effectively oppress or discriminate against another group, it is not just a violation of the law, it is against our constitution.

It is this bedrock principle that the vast majority of Americans are recoiling against in this case, and justly so. “Freedom of religion” here is simply a ruse. Indiana is in the process of getting its butt collectively slapped by fair-minded Americans. I for one won’t visit Indiana or spend one dime there until their disgusting law is repealed.

Oh the Mediocrity! Driving America by Interstate

The Thinker by Rodin

We are wending our way home from a vacation in Chicago, traveling I-70 east from Columbus, Ohio. Overall, Chicago was a good destination for a vacation. Nevertheless, having done Montreal and Toronto during our last vacation, Portland and Denver on recent business trips and New York City many times I am citied out. On my next vacation, I want a few weeks far from civilization.

Nonetheless, if you have to visit a huge American city and have deep pockets then Chicago is a terrific destination. It has the virtues of New York without most of its downsides — like the hellish 24/7 noise, the incessant congestion, the filth and the rats. (I am speaking only of downtown Chicago. The rest of the city, from our views of it, was far less enamoring.) While in Chicago, we saw terrific museums and took in two musicals. The more memorable one was the touring version of the new Broadway hit musical Wicked. The other was an irreverent but very funny Second City musical version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Aside from four nights in Chicago, we spent three nights in the Ohio suburbs. Each stop was convenient to traveling and the people we were visiting. Our overnights were in Maumee (a convenient rest stop south of Toledo), Springfield (a suburb on the north side of Cincinnati) and Dublin (on the periphery of Columbus).

I am afraid that the driving part of our vacation left a lot to be desired. It also left me sad and more than a bit nostalgic. Driving used to be an adventure. Now driving across America is a bland, frustrating and sometimes abrasive experience. I should wax poetic at the marvel at our interstate system. Undeniably, it is overall a convenient and usually quick way to zip across the country by automobile. Our transportation infrastructure, even if often congested, is still a marvel that is reached neither in size nor in scale by any other country. However, driving the interstates today, at least here in the Midwest, struck me as a sad and extended experience in the mediocrity and homogenization of modern America.

You can get a feel for the values of a state by traversing their toll roads. On the Pennsylvania Turnpike, you feel doubly squeezed: by the often-narrow road and the high cost per mile for the toll. Pennsylvania goes for minimalist rest stops that are often crowded and dirty. Getting back on the toll road may mean putting the pedal to the metal because the merge lanes do not last long. Fortunately, Pennsylvania has greatly improved their turnpike. While it can be considered fair at best, it used to be downright poor. The surrounding scenery helps to make up for road itself.

The Ohio Turnpike has both the best rest stops and the best-maintained toll roads. We travelers actually feel welcomed on their turnpike. Admittedly, large stretches of it may be flat and boring. At least much of their turnpike is three lanes in each direction, so you do not feel like you are going to be scraped by a passing vehicle like you do in Pennsylvania. While Ohio’s tolls are not cheap, you feel like you got your money’s worth. Their rest stops are attractive to the eye. They offer a variety of restaurants that are well maintained and uniformly clean. The gas prices on the turnpike plazas reflect street prices off the pike. The good citizens of Ohio have decided that travelers should not endure either a second-class road or second-class services on its toll roads. I appreciate these kinds of values. Perhaps I will retire in Ohio.

Contrast this with traveling on the Indiana Turnpike. In Indiana, you get the feeling the state just wants your dough, and as much of it as they can get for the least amount of money. The road quality quickly degrades. Unfortunately Indiana, as experienced from its interstates, does not speak well of the state. If I were to judge the state by what I saw along its interstates, Indiana would rank near the bottom of desirable states to live. The values of Indiana seem to be large annoying billboards, cheap fireworks, adult superstores, strip joints, casino gambling and, oh, religion too. Go figure. There is not much of anything bucolic to see on their turnpike other than cornfields. As you pass through Gary, you may have to roll up your windows to avoid the chemical stench. In short, from the interstate Indiana gives the impression it is a state full of trailer park trash values. If this red state is an example of Republican utopia, Republicans are welcome to it. If I were in charge of promoting Indiana, I would be thinking about making some major changes.

Venture off the interstate in Indiana to buy gas and it becomes impossible to distinguish one place from another. It soon all runs together: garish billboards, large signs for restaurants and hotels hoisted hundreds of feet in the air, neon lights, harsh industrial lighting, and the ubiquitous but deafening drone of accelerating trucks. Alas, in this respect Indiana is like most other states. Junk food is cheap and plentiful, which may explain the girth of the people I encountered. Unless you are close to a city, trying to find a place to purchase something resembling healthy food off Indiana interstates is a largely a pointless endeavor. You had better be hungry for McDonalds, Wendy’s, Taco Bell or KFC if you are traveling through Indiana. If you are lucky, the exit may have a Subway.

While there are still many cornfields in Indiana and Ohio, it increasingly feels like the cities are encroaching on each other. (Cincinnati and Columbus are good examples.) Each place where we stopped overnight seemed indistinguishable from the others. The nearby restaurants and theater chains were largely the same that we have at home. There was nothing particularly memorable about Maumee, Springdale or Dublin. They offer bland uniformity and convenience for the traveler, but not one thing that will make you turn your head. You would think they would be cleverer at marketing. Those who drive I-95 to and from Florida certainly know about South of the Border.

We found the truck traffic on the interstates to be often overwhelming. I have to assume that the railroads are having a hard time attracting customers. It seems that all of our freight is now moving by truck. We recreational drivers spend much of our time jockeying around the voluminous single, double and even triple trailer trucks. Between the laboring trucks and the heightened volume of the summer traffic, we found that the cruise control had little value.

Perhaps things are different in Europe. If we were to vacation there, as we hope to at some point, perhaps every place where we stop will feel different, look different and have a unique character. However, the more I travel the United States, the more homogenous it feels. It feels particularly this way when I travel it by car. Perhaps these are simply expressions of our deepest values. Perhaps we are truly one United States now in fact. From our highways, the evidence seems overwhelming. It seems that in America we want our travel experience to be like our fast food: familiar, mediocre and predictable.

The late CBS News correspondent Charles Kuralt used to travel the highways and byways of America. In every community, he seemed to find a unique culture or story. Maybe that is still the case. You probably will not find it along America’s interstates. They are best breezed through and forgotten.