Freedom: A Definition Issue?

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This blog was originally posted on April 10th, 2015.

Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act reminds us once again of the role that definition can play in argumentation. The case has been made that the recent Indiana law is no different from the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed into law by President Clinton in 1993. One crucial difference, however, is a matter of definition. The federal RFRA states, “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” The wording of the state law is identical except that the term “governmental entity” replaces “government.” That is not the crucial difference, however.

What is crucial is that where the federal law does not define the word “person,” the Indiana law explicitly gives it a much broader definition than most people would expect. A person is not just an individual, but “an organization, a religious society, a church, a body of communicants . . . . a partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, a company, a firm, a society, a joint-stock company . . . .”  By stipulating that broad—and unexpected—definition of a person, Indiana has changed the whole interpretation of the law—or opened it up to a much broader range of interpretation. It would be useful for our students to consider how that stipulated definition changes the law.

The Indiana controversy is reminiscent of the controversy that revolved around Chick-Fil-A not too long ago. In that case, not an individual, but a company, was making decisions based on religion. That company drew criticism and boycotts because it donated to organizations opposed to same-sex marriage. It neither refused to hire or to serve gay or lesbian individuals. A question for students to consider is how the Indiana law would apply to that situation.

The key term “exercise of religion,” of course, is open to interpretation, and it is the discriminatory forms that the exercise of religion can take in this day of broader acceptance of same-sex marriage that have led to most of the outcry against the law. The owners of a bakery refuse to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because they view homosexuality as a sin. Not a life-threatening exercise of religion, but how far should exercise of religion go in a world where members of ISIS use religion as justification for their atrocities?

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.