This week, Indiana’s legislature passed a bill, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (SB 101), which is now in the hands of our Governor, Mike Pence. He has said that he will sign this bill into law. This act would allow private parties — including businesses open to the public — to invoke a religious defense in legal cases involving refusal of service. Many folks think that this legislation is focused particularly on protecting refusal of service to gay and lesbian people. The implications of this legislation certainly include, but also reach far beyond, this particular community.

This paragraph is found in the social statement, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” adopted by the 2009 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:

While Lutherans hold various convictions regarding lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships, this church is united on many critical issues. It opposes all forms of verbal or physical harassment and assault based on sexual orientation. It supports legislation and policies to protect civil rights and to prohibit discrimination in housing, employment, and public services. It has called upon congregations and members to welcome, care for, and support same-gender couples and their families and to advocate for their legal protection.

In the spirit of these shared commitments, the day after this legislation passed in the Indiana House, I wrote and submitted this letter to the Indianapolis Star newspaper:

What is religious freedom? Is it free range to do whatever we want, regardless of the possible negative consequences for others? Is religious freedom the “right” to use our business enterprises as shields from people and circumstances that we think might taint our own moral purity? Is religious freedom the unmitigated permission to impose our own moral codes on others and to keep them at a distance so our own moral purity won’t be compromised? Not according to the Christian scriptures, the very scriptures invoked by some supporters of the misguided and so-called religious freedom legislation.

At the heart of Christian faith is the good news that in Jesus Christ we are forgiven and saved by grace (not through our own moral purity or works). By this amazing grace we are set free from trying to keep ourselves pure and holy and are called, rather, to follow Jesus into the dark places no one else will go and to love and serve – to touch, eat with, and welcome as Jesus did – those whom others turn away or whom the powers that be push aside.

The apostle Paul put it this way in his ancient letter to the Galatians (chapter 5): “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

This is the religious freedom Christians are called to embrace in their daily, workaday lives and in the businesses they run.

The Rev. Dr. William O. Gafkjen