Indiana Wants Me (or Not)

Recently, Governor Mike Pence of Indiana signed a controversial law (the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act) into effect. Unlike any other such laws in states or at the federal level, the new Indiana law quite directly and specifically allows discrimination against LGBTQ persons (and possibly others, such as unwed mothers, or. . . ) on the basis of one’s religious views. Yes, it is indeed discriminatory. News reports indicate that individuals have already been refused catering for weddings and that “no gays allowed” signs will be permissible. (See this piece, for example, or this.)

The array of people and corporations objecting is amazing — including Walmart, Apple, NASCAR, the NCAA, the states of Connecticut and Washington, and many college and university presidents.

I too object.

I object as a college president, as a religious studies scholar, as a citizen, and as someone who has the decency to think that we can work out clashes of rights in a different way. Let me elaborate on the first two, each of which is a concern from the point of view of this blog, called as it is “Chicago is Our Campus.”

On the educational front, the enacting of this law simply seems . . . bad. We know that LGBTQ youth are disproportionately bullied, disproportionately suicidal, and otherwise hurt by the society in which we live. (So, of course, are LGBTQ persons of all ages, but for today’s purposes, youth matter.) Colleges are not only for youth, but also for youth. A law like the one Pence signed into law chills the climate for all colleges and universities in Indiana and, more recently, Arkansas. By doing this in one state, Pence chills the climate for all.

Indiana and Arkansas chill Chicago, arguably.

Beyond the impact on citizens in our individual lives — and thus on individual faculty, staff, and students — there are institutional concerns as well. Why? We know that pizza joints may refuse catering for weddings according to this law. What about colleges? To support this law is to support any institution or individual who wishes to discriminate, including educational institutions. Right? May they refuse to admit LGBTQ students? May parts of the institution do so, like the food service division? May schools discriminate?  Colleges can — and do — discriminate in both legitimate (read legal) and illegitimate ways. This law authorizes illegitimate legal forms of discrimination. This law moves us backward when it comes to inclusive excellence and risks a few institutions simply refusing to include LGBTQ persons in their inclusive environment.

Here I must emphasize that not all religious colleges are alike, as not all religions are alike, and thus one ought not confuse those which are inclusive and those that are. . . not.  We know that there are already religious institutions — indeed some religious colleges — that have asked to be excused from including LGBTQ persons (or, on related though not identical notes, access to contraception through health care) in their institutional work. We know that the courts have been asked to and/or have intervened. And, they have done so in settings which are not affected by laws such as that signed by Pence which aims to protect some when they discriminate against others.

This takes us to two more specialized perspectives on the Indiana (and Arkansas) debacle in terms of higher education.

Let’s begin with religious studies, a field that is distinct from the practice of religion and brings a variety of methodologies to bear in analysis of religion and/or religions. To cite a 1963 court decision, religious studies teaches about religion, it does not teach religion. As such, it focuses on the history of religions in, for example, the US, as well as the entanglements of religion with politics, sociology, psychology and literature. While religion can be defined in various ways (in law, court, and classroom) — for our purposes it certainly includes Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and etcetera. It includes fundamentalist — and more progressive forms of institution and of individual practice. Religious Studies is rife these days with good research on the relation of LGBTQ concerns and religion(s), including the religiosity of LGBTQ persons themselves. On the face of it, this law and those supporting it seem to be uninformed about that history or the depth of connection between religious freedom and other freedoms in the US; they seem, that is, to have ignored a long history of solutions that steer much more clearly toward freedom for all. The law seems to reject aspects of American civil religion described long ago by Robert Bellah (in The Broken Covenant) as seeking to bring our aspiration of equality to reality and, instead, declare some more equal than others.

Of course, other fields are relevant as well, including LGBTQ Studies itself and what is in some places called Women’s or Women’s and Gender Studies. Such fields are resisted — including, for example, by government officials — as frivolous or ideological — by the very same people who support this law. (For those who do not support the law but find such fields superfluous, including also ethnic studies, perhaps some reflection is in order. Too often described as proselytizing, such fields actually provide the contexts — both historical and otherwise — that are missing from decisions like Pence’s to sign this law.)

Yes, this is an educational issue because there is clearly ignorance out there. It is also an educational issue because it is accompanied by attacks on education itself.

And, perhaps to our dismay within higher education, Pence’s decision is not only an educational issue. Like all too many people, Pence is not merely ignorant, he is callous. Like others who continue to smoke when there is clear information that shows its damaging effects on human life, Pence may need more than information. But he also needs information — for his actions are shaping  access to full human rights and much, much more.


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