When Consciences Collide: Making Sense of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act

“It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others.” -Thomas Jefferson

Been There, Done That Had That Done to MeIndiana

Amidst all of today’s clamor over discrimination based on religious or moral standards, I’m remembering an incident when I was on the receiving end of it myself.

Twenty six years ago, my ministry sponsored its first conference. Brochures were needed, so I placed an order with a local printer and gave him the copy, which included details of our position on homosexuality, scripture, and purity.

When I came to the shop two weeks later to pick up the brochures, the manager coldly informed me that my order was delayed and could be picked up the next day at 8:00AM. That was the day of the conference, a major inconvenience, but I needed the brochures so I was stuck. Yet when I arrived the next morning the shop was closed, and when I called I was told to come back an hour later, again with no explanation. When I finally collected the brochures, the manager’s contempt for me was undisguised as he took my check, glaring and silent. Since the conference had already begun I was rushed, so I grabbed the box and ran, stupidly neglecting to check the product.

Only when I got to the event and put out the brochures did I see they were splotched with ink drops on every page, marring the content and looking downright horrible. Clearly the print shop objected to the event I was hosting, making their protest known through shoddy work.

I’d been discriminated against. To this day, my feelings about it are mixed.

On the one hand, they had no right to sabotage me, so their actions were wrong. (A fact I noted when I put the stop-payment on their check.) But they were entitled to their objections. They in fact had every moral right to refuse the job by saying, “We cannot in good conscience support this event, so we will not fill this order. Please try the printer down the street.” And that’s exactly what they should have done.

Would I have been irritated? Sure. But would I have been violated? Hardly. I could have taken my business to another shop, where my work would get done, and the first shop-owner’s principles could stay intact.

Whether it’s a conservative Christian baker not wishing to cater a same sex wedding, or a politically progressive shop owner not wishing to service a conservative conference, when consciences collide, it doesn’t have to become a win/lose proposition.

So What’s the Fuss?

Ask that to the folks heated up over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by Governor Mike Pence last week and going into effect July 1. The bill (see here  to read it in its entirety) protects businesses and individuals from being coerced, by government or other individuals, into actions violating their religious conscience, unless a compelling government interest in such coercion can be shown.

This could cover a lot of scenarios. Suppose parents who belong to an extremist cult claim their religion teaches them to injure their children as a form of discipline. In that case the government’s compelling interest in protecting the child would obviously override the parent’s “religious conscience.” On the other hand, if a Christian printer was asked to design and print brochures for a local KKK rally, he might refuse. Should the KKK decide to sue for discrimination, then under this bill they’d need to prove the government had a compelling interest in overriding the printer’s religious convictions regarding race.

But let’s cut the nonsense. We all know the controversy isn’t about race or child abuse. Though the term “sexual orientation” is nowhere to be found in the bill, the furor over it is about homosexuality, same-sex weddings, gender issues, and the rights or non-rights of religious business owners to refuse services for events they cannot in good conscience support. Gov. Pence and the Indiana Legislature may not have had that in mind when they approved the RFRA (hard to believe, but possible) yet that’s where you’ll find the eye of this week’s hurricane.

Much Ado About Not That Much

And it’s one granddaddy of a hurricane.

Despite the fact this bill essentially mirrors, at a state level, the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration act signed by President Clinton in 1993, and despite the fact 19 other states currently have such laws on the books, and despite the fact that within those 19 states no cases of discrimination against gays and lesbians has been reported as a result of such laws ; and despite the fact that court rulings in such states over disputes between Christian businesses and gay plaintiffs have consistently ruled in favor of the gays – despite all this, the public outcry over this bill suggests Indiana has morphed into the People’s Republic of Hatred.

Since the Governor signed the bill into law last Thursday, the National Collegiate Association of Athletes, whose Final Four Tournament is set to be in the state later this week, has publicly opposed it and expressed reservations about future participation in IndianaHillary Clinton quickly denounced the law;  APPLE’s CEO Tim Cook called it “unjust;” San Francisco’s Mayor has banned publicly funded travel to Indiana;  and NASCAR, Starbucks, PayPal and Yelp have all added their public criticisms into the mix.

Celebrities have jumped in, to no one’s surprise. Singer and actress Aura McDonald sent an open tweet to Gov. Pence comparing his actions to the bigotry of the Jim Crow South;  while actor George Takei of Star Trek fame called for a boycott of Indiana, claiming the new law treats gays and lesbians as “second class citizens.”  Saturday Night Live! mocked the bill last weekend  and Miley Cyrus, with typical reserve, tweeted “You’re an a—hole, Gov. Pence.”

The storm of objections has got Indiana’s Governor and Legislators scrambling to clarify what the law does and does not do, and no doubt we’ll be hearing explanations, condemnations, and defense of the bill for some time.

So Where Do We Stand?

I support the bill, believing it to be a necessary relief for business owners forced to choose between conscience and coercion, a dilemma no one should be squeezed into. I don’t for a moment buy into the notion RFRA green-lights discrimination, a point demonstrated in other states with their own RFRA’s in place. So not only does the bill give no permission to wantonly discriminate against gay customers, it may also offer scant help for business owners sued by gay couples, if prior cases are to be considered. In short, Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act is hardly the boogeyman it’s being made out to be.

(Truth be told, it probably cannot go as far towards protecting religious freedom as many of us wish it would. It surely does not go as far as many others are suggesting it will.)

Still, I’m saddened, but not even mildly surprised, by the reaction it’s generated. Hard experience has shown that, when it comes to homosexuality, any public action or statement of disapproval – or, for that matter, any support for even the right to disapprove – is met with all the reasonableness of the French Revolution.

Which is exactly what led USA Today’s Stephen Prothero, a supporter of same-sex marriage, to nevertheless ask: “Is it really necessary to pin a scarlet letter on those who believe the Bible prohibits gay marriage? Or might we learn to be satisfied with preserving liberty for ourselves without imposing our ideals (on sex and religion) on others?”

Well said. It’s discouraging to see conviction so easily misrepresented as hatred, which is a common and growing injustice.

And Yet —

That said, let’s still not be too quick to cry “Foul.” RFRA is just and necessary, but not all of the concerns raised about it are invalid. More to the point, not all charges of bigotry, among Christians and non-Christians alike, are without merit. Not by a long shot.

Listen to this self-identified Christian restaurant owner in Indiana as he admits, on a call-in radio show last week, he regularly discriminates against gay and lesbian customers by lying to them when they arrive at his restaurant, telling them the stove is out of order, and thereby getting them to leave so he doesn’t have to serve them. Peruse this Christian school board member’s statements, originally made on Facebook, as he admits being glad homosexuals die of AIDS, confirms his own children would be thrown out if they were gay, and describes his general contempt for all homosexual peopleConsider the actions of some local Christians who, upon hearing that a gay campsite was opening in their area, pooled their funds to purchase a hog-farm next to the campsite for the sake of expressing public contempt and crippling the gay business.

Or for that matter, ponder this statement Gov. Pence is alleged to have made: “Jesus would never welcome a sinner into his place of business.”  One wonders, if the Governor really said that, whether he’s heard about that stunning loaves and fishes meal Jesus prepared for a multitude which, I’m sure, included a sinner or two. (OK, let’s give the guy a break, God bless him. He’s clearly under incalculable stress over all of this.)

While incidents like these are rare, they remind us that yes, there are those within the church with plain, ugly animus towards homosexuals. And indeed, some believers are cloaking un-Biblical prejudice under the guise of religious freedom. To deny that is to show little self-reflection; even less integrity.

Any Ideas?

But if we all take a deep breath we really might find a way, despite unbridgeable differences, to work this out. Let’s start by abandoning the idea that people on the “other side” aren’t as sincere in their beliefs as we are. Pro-gay advocates need to drop the idea Christians cannot in good conscience object to homosexuality without being hateful, and conservative Christians need to realize those supporting pro-gay causes can and do sincerely believe their cause is just and humane, a modern version of the Civil Rights Movement we hold in such esteem.

The question becomes, then: Can we see the difference between opposing an event rather than opposing people? And that’s no small question.

I really think, in most cases, those objecting to homosexuality have no interest in discriminating against homosexual people themselves. They have no interest in refusing to serve them, make products for them, or welcome them into their business establishments,

Which is as it should be. Surely it’s wrong for a Christian vendor to deny service to someone simply because of their sexual preference, so the idea of refusing to serve a meal to a gay couple, or declining to rent a hotel room to a gay or lesbian person, is and should be unacceptable.

But that seldom happens, and most Christians wouldn’t want it to. Nor would most Moslems, Jehovah Witnesses, or Mormons, for that matter. When people of faith object, it is normally to an event, not an individual.

This needs to be underlined: If and when we discriminate, it is not against individuals, but against practices, ceremonies, or events we cannot in good conscience support.

So Christian bakers generally will be glad to bake a cake for a lesbian woman’s birthday party, or a gay college student’s graduation. After all, birthdays and graduations are inherently good, regardless of who is celebrating them.

But that same baker may well object to lending his talents to an event he finds inherently wrong. If other bakers are available, willing, and in the same general vicinity, then no undue burden is placed on the same-sex couple if the Christian baker declines the job. Many business, after all, will be only too happy to get the patronage of couples who the Christian, Muslim, or Mormon businessman could not in good conscience service.

Just Thinking Out Loud for a Moment

“Good conscience” being, of course, the operative phrase. And let’s be clear about this as well: Conscience and Prejudice are two very different things.

When I in good conscience refuse to participate in something it’s because it runs contrary to my world view. When I act on prejudice, it’s only because I dislike or look down on another human being. The difference is huge and significant.

So as controversy over RFRA’s rises, Christians may eventually be required to show proof that their opposition to catering same sex weddings, for example, stems from genuinely held beliefs, not just prejudicial whims. And – I’m just thinking out loud here, so please bear with me – would that be so bad?

I really don’t want Indiana businessmen and women who genuinely dislike homosexuals and hold prejudicial views towards them, to be able to claim a religious exemption for what is, in fact, prejudice, not religious belief. And sadly, I can envision such people pulling out the “religion” card to justify their prejudice.

Now the difference between conviction and convenience is significant. When I was of draft-age during the Viet Nam war, many young men tried avoiding the draft as Conscientious Objectors. Their attempts were met with skepticism from the draft board, so if you wanted to get the Conscientious Objector exception, you needed to show longstanding proof of your convictions.

Would it be so wrong to expect the same from us? It may eventually be required of Christians and others who object to being coerced into providing services we object to. If we’re going to claim Religious Conscience, is it too much to ask that we be able to verify our faith in practical terms? Anyone can say, “I’m a Christian.” But everyone who says so should be able to offer proof via records of tithes, church membership, or other practical ways their faith impacts their lifestyle.

Buckle Up

Regardless, we’ll be hearing about Indiana for a while, I’m sure. And those of us holding the traditional view of sexuality will have more and more opportunities to explain and defend that view, opportunities which, I hope, open doors to discuss the broader issues, such as Why do we believe what we believe? How do we determine right from wrong? Do we have a Creator? And if so, how can we know what He intends for His creation? Crucial questions, and terrific entry points for evangelism.

Because at the end of the day, we are still ambassadors for Christ, representing the heart and mind of the One who wants to be Savior of all, not some. So may these controversies, exhausting as they are, become vehicles for building, rather than burning, bridges of conversation and reasoning in our workplace, school, or home.

And as the subject arises, whether in the case of Indiana or future news items or a similar nature, may God equip us to rise, in equal measures of wisdom and boldness, to speak truth in love.

Especially now, when both are being so carelessly and radically redefined.


  1. Sometimes I feel caught up in a whirlwind.

    • Joe Dallas says:

      Well, I’m not at all sure that we aren’t caught up in one Lilly. This subject is a pretty good example, and I guess constitutes a whirlwind of its own.

  2. Kathi Roman says:

    Thank You for Your voice of reason from Indiana

  3. Roger Marsh says:

    Excellent piece, Joe. Thoughtfully written and presented. Thank you for putting in the time and effort to share this!

    • Joe Dallas says:

      Thanks Roger. This is an ever-changing situation and can be hard to write about in a balanced way, so I appreciate the encouragement.

  4. Darla Meeks says:

    We have to remember that Christians are called, like Jesus, to lay down our
    rights. While we walk this earth, we have no rights. Forget rights. We are
    slaves. Jesus, the King of all, became a slave…I am not greater than my

    This controversy always brings to my mind the wedding at Cana, where Jesus
    performed His first miracle. Far from tee-totaling, Jesus enjoyed the fruit of
    the vine. We know that He turned water into wine for people who were already
    rip-roaring drunk.

    While Jesus was able to enjoy alcohol in moderation, others could not. And we
    know that folks at that wedding were already three sheets to the wind when the
    miracle occurred, or the wine steward would not have been so irritated that the
    good wine had been saved for last…when people were too impaired to enjoy it.

    So, we know Jesus was and is sinless. Did He “condone” the sin of drunkenness
    by providing even more wine to those who had already had too much? Obviously
    not. Their sin was still their sin…not His. Jesus was just enjoying
    Himself…their decision to leave moderation in favor of excess was not Jesus’

    Joe, sometimes a cake is just a cake. Just make the doggone cake and forego the
    massive legal fees of a Supreme Court review! How much money does it take to
    satisfy “righteousness”? I think zero dollars and zero cents is the answer.

    We don’t have to harm others in order to give ourselves a sense of
    “righteousness”, or to quell our fear of “condoning” (which is not really a sin
    defined in Scripture, per se). Let’s go ahead and make the wedding cake, let
    them have what they think they want, and give them the good news of Jesus Christ
    without discussing their particular sins…grace is the answer…not our likes
    and dislikes.

    Like Jesus creating some wine, making a little cake with 2 similar figurines on
    the top does not mean we have condoned sin. It means we have accepted sinners
    exactly as we find them, and we have blessed them with prayer and love and

    So, we see from Jesus’ example that “opposition to catering same sex weddings”
    is not proof of righteousness at all. It’s just plain silly.

    • I LOVE this! This is obviously a well thought out and Biblically supported comment and opinion. I whole heartedly agree with what you are saying and I want to thank you for putting the time and effort into creating and sharing this viewpoint!
      I also think it’s just silly for Christian bakers to single out this one sin when it comes to marriage. It would make sense that they would deny a gay wedding cake if they also denied non Christians, divorcees, and other such weddings. But alas, it is easier to pick out a homosexual couple than it is to pick out a non Christian or previously married couple.

    • Broadwood says:

      John the Baptist was beheaded for calling out Herod’s sin. He didn’t have to – Herod wasn’t infringing JtB’s ‘rights’, but he was called to, despite the consequences.
      This isn’t about Christians asserting rights – it’s about bearing witness to the truth, and being coerced to betray that. SS weddings cannot ever become godly as they stand, according to Jesus own words (Mat 19) – remarriages and civil marriages could be or become so, so that’s a false comparison.
      And your analogy about the wedding at Cana is a poor one. Enjoying wine at a celebration isn’t sinful, and we don’t know that the guests were excessively drunk. So Jesus wasn’t encouraging sin.
      Using those as a reason to call Christians ‘silly’ who have risked livelihoods to stand graciously and faithfully for their witness to their Saviour says more about you than them.

  5. Thanks as always for your well reasoned insight Joe. I believe the worst is yet to come actually. Thanks for sharing the words of the USA today reporter as well, because he’s exactly correct I’m already finding out.

    I can no longer simply agree with the “good teacher” when He speaks of marriage between one man and one woman in Matthew 19, while He affirms as it was from the beginning without it making me a bigot to my own family members. I agree in equal justice under the law, and therefore believe that the same benefits allowed to married men and women should also be awarded to state civil unions. But – simply agreeing with Jesus still makes me a bigot.

    These are surely the last days. And they’ll get worse before they’re over.

  6. PS, the irony is quite telling. Just who are the tolerant ones here?

  7. just thinking … do all conservative hotel owners are asking unmarried couples what they do in their room when they stay there? do christian bakery, cafe or restaurant owners ask their teen or adult clients who have regular sex and are not married, if they commit adultery? so what is the difference when speaking about sins?

  8. OK, we’re tossing around red herrings here. Would this be even debatable if I demanded a Muslim cafe owner serve me pork? How dare he deny me my request…it’s not against MY sincerely held belief to eat pork.


    • Darla Meeks says:

      You’ve started a good discussion here, Joe, and thanks for that.

      As for me, I just don’t believe it is a sin to make a wedding cake for a gay wedding…any more than it was a sin for Jesus to make wine for drunkards. They asked Him for wine and He graciously provided…for the just and the unjust alike.

      Romans 12:18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

  9. what I love about christianity – you be the example, people follow. be amongst sinners, eat with them, but you do not sin. As Francis of Assisi said “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”

  10. Honestly, I don’t understand why anyone in business would turn away any paying customer… but where does this thing end? How soon before clergymen and churches are being sued for not performing same-sex “marriages?”

  11. The simple fact of the matter is that the gay rights movement is founded on the principle, going back to the French revolution and beyond, that religion is evil and must be done away with. There is no other reason to be promoting a sexual perversion as a civil right.

    There is absolutely no science to back the constant assertion that homosexuality is innate. In fact, the question of whether or not free will even exists in unanswered and quite possible unanswerable. At stake here is the very concept of morality and whether or not people in general have any right to have ANY values not backed by the state.

    If you were to pay close attention to what the Bible says, OT and New, about homosexuality and homosexuals, you would realize it is a behavior associated with the very worst sort of rejection of God. There will be no compromise offered from this group of folks.

    Christians are going to be forced to take a stand – something they have been loathe to do most of my lifetime.

    Welcome to the reality of evil.

  12. Andrew Roberts says:

    Excellent article, as usual Joe. I know I can always count on you when it comes to this subject. Also, having met Mike Pence numerous times and being from his hometown, I would be very shocked if he actually made that “sinners” comment.

  13. To the post regarding the notion that “as Christians we have no rights, forget rights….”

    I don’t believe (thankfully) that the founding bible thumpers held that same view, otherwise there’d probably be no America.

    Even the Apostle Paul reminded the magistrates, he was a citizen of Rome. I assume implying the fact that he was entitled to the rights that came with it. Acts 16:37,38.

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