by Dennis LoRusso
Last week, state legislators in Mississippi and in my home state of Georgia introduced bills that would allow businesses to refuse service on religious grounds. Georgia’s bill, HB 1023, known popularly as the “Preservation of Religious Freedom” Act, resembles recent legislation enacted by Arizona lawmakers and a proposed bill in Kansas. In each case, efforts have proven unsuccessful, either withdrawn (as in Georgia or Mississippi), vetoed (Arizona), or defeated (Kansas). A vocal opposition ranging from gay rights groups to multinational corporations derided these endeavors as enabling discrimination against members of the LGBT community, and politicians from both sides of the aisle agreed.
While this controversy seems to have arisen as quickly as it subsided, it does illustrate how private businesses have become a primary site of conflict over religious liberty in the United States and globally. From Chic-Fil-A’s stance against same-sex marriage to the acquiescence of Penguin Books in the face of vehement protests over Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, economic acts appear to have acquired “religious” significance.
Still, I cannot help but ask whether this is really essentially about protecting religious liberty? In the American context, the political landscape exhibits a remarkable degree of ambiguity. Evangelicals and libertarian groups might be quick to defend the rights of Chic-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby to run their firms according to “Biblical principles,” but some of these same voices will deride a Federal court’s decision against Abercrombie and Fitch. In the latter case, it was religious and political liberals who came to the defense of Hani Khan, a Muslim employee who refused to remove her hijab while working and was subsequently fired for violating company dress code.
How can we account for these inconsistencies? It seems to me that pleas in support of religious liberty more often function as rhetorical anchors in the contestation of boundaries. Both sides are concerned with establishing who counts in the formulation of an organizational identity. Is a business merely the extension of its proprietor, and therefore her personal religious identity? Or must it carve out space for the diverse religious convictions of its stakeholders?
How one responds to these questions often depends upon who counts as one of “us.” The Religious Right might support the sovereignty of business owners, as in the Hobby Lobby case, to reject the contraception mandate, but they vehemently oppose company policies that prohibit elaborate Christmas displays in the workplace during the holiday season.
Perhaps what is most telling, however, as these struggles over identity wage, is how the outcomes of these struggles are determined by a prevailing economic logic: Is this good for business? Chic-Fil-A stood its ground and saw its sales increase 12 percent in 2012, according to the Huffington Post. The most recent attempts in Arizona, Georgia, and Mississippi to pass legislation affirming the religious liberty of business owners were halted by the outspoken opposition of organizations like the National Football League, Marriot, and Delta Airlines, each of which stressed publicly that there would be dire economic consequences if such laws were passed.
Even in the current polarized political atmosphere, it seems conservatives and liberals can agree on one thing: economic interests will trump religious liberty every time. Perhaps we are most consistent, not in our commitment to protecting the individual right to the free exercise of religion, but in our unwavering commitment to the logic of the marketplace.
James Dennis LoRusso is a doctoral candidate in American Religious Cultures at Emory University. His dissertation project examines the relationship between spirituality in business and larger cultural and socio-economic developments in the contemporary United States.