By Bob Allen
While religious conservatives didn’t get all they wanted in a religious-freedom bill signed recently by Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison, a supporter of the original measure says after last summer’s Hobby Lobby decision, the final version of the law is adequate to protect small business owners from being forced to participate in same-sex weddings against their conscience.
After the governor refused to sign House Bill 1228 because of concerns it would permit discrimination against gays, Arkansas lawmakers tweaked the bill to remove a provision specifying that the state Religious Freedom Restoration Act would apply not only to complaints against the government, but a person could cite the Arkansas RFRA as a defense against another citizen.
“The advantage that the first bill had was that it was specific in definitions, but through the applications of RFRA over the years in courts with federal and state courts, those definitions are applied,” Larry Page, a Southern Baptist minister who leads the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council, said in a podcast with the Arkansas Baptist News.
Page said the first bill was “just a little clearer” than the measure signed into law that closely mirrors the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by President Clinton in 1993, “but they are essentially the same.”
“The bill that was signed by the governor is very much like the federal RFRA and most of the state RFRAs, so nothing is given up, except maybe a little bit of clarity on the front end,” Page said.
The federal law prevents the government from placing a substantial burden on a person’s religious exercise unless it has a compelling reason for doing so and does it by the least restrictive means. Last June, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that for-profit corporations can qualify as a “person” entitled to RFRA protection.
A number of states have passed their own RFRA laws since the Supreme Court ruled that Congress lacked authority to impose it at the state level. More recent bills proposed against a backdrop of the legalization of same-sex marriage, however, have taken into consideration small business owners like bakers or florists who because of religious objections do not want to be required to provide creative services used to celebrate gay marriage.
Advocates of marriage equality for gays argue such laws are a “license to discriminate” against people because of their sexual orientation in the same way that Jim Crow laws permitted white business owners to refuse service to African-Americans.
Stephen Suffron at First Baptist Church Stephens, Ark., said backlash to those proposals has had a chilling effect on Christians who strongly believe the Bible defines marriage as only between a man and a woman.
“We have kind of an image of Jesus now as where he was just ‘nice.’ And if anybody wanted something, he was just happy to give it to them, because he was just nice,” said Suffron, a 2009 graduate of B.H. Carroll Theological Institute. So any time we look at any issue there is going to be people who say ‘What Jesus would do is be nice.’”
Suffron, who became pastor of FBC, Stephens, in 2010, said Jesus “took a stand on a lot of different issues,” and conservative Christians need to be prepared to challenge people who say otherwise.
“One of the main things that’s being used right now is to take the book of Leviticus and throw out other laws from the book of Leviticus and make the book of Leviticus look like a ridiculously absurd book that nobody follows, and we’re just cherry picking one verse out of Leviticus to fight against people we don’t like anyway,” Suffron said.
“We need to be prepared for why is the idea of homosexuality being against God’s ways still in play, whereas things like not cutting your hair and your sideburns and things like that is not still something we follow,” he said. “We need to understand things like the freedom we have from the law.
Suffron said it’s not only Leviticus that condemns homosexuality. “Jesus agreed upon this in the definition of marriage, that Paul agreed,” he said. “It’s something that’s uniform throughout Scripture. It’s also uniform throughout Christian history.”
Suffron said the only Christians that have ever tried to embrace homosexuality are liberal churches in the West.
“Now they try to make it sound like we are on the wrong side of history — when this history that they are throwing us in with fought for slavery and Jim Crow and things like that — when in fact we’re standing with all church history and the rest of the world and where the church is most vibrant and growing, in Asia and Africa and South America,” he said.
“These are the places where the church is most vibrant, and those people have no such movement toward embracing homosexuality and all these things,” Suffron said. “We’re standing with the majority of Christians, especially throughout history but even now. So we need to understand that although in our culture it feels like we’re being overwhelmed by this, we’re standing with the rest of the body of Christ on it.”