Jindal: Christians need legal protection for their religious expression

What happens when the irresistible meme meets the unmovable politician? Governor Bobby Jindal gave a demonstration yesterday during his appearance on Meet the Press in this exchange with host Chuck Todd. This turns into a good demonstration of how politicians need to work within challenging, if not hostile, media environments on controversial topics. Todd repeatedly frames RFRA as servicing an impulse for broad discrimination, while Jindal emphasized that Christians need RFRA to defend against government force applied in such a way that specific choices on participation in events could put them out of business.

Hopefully, other Republicans are paying attention here:

CHUCK TODD: Well, let me ask you this. Do you agree with some other social conservatives that you think Governors Pence and Governor Hutchinson of Arkansas and Indiana have essentially caved to too much pressure?

BOBBY JINDAL: Well, Chuck, I was very worried about the law in Indiana. I’m disappointed. Let’s remember what this debate was originally all about. This is about business owners that don’t wanna have to choose between their Christian faith, their sincerely held religious beliefs, and being able to operate their businesses.

Now, what they don’t want is the government to force them to participate in wedding ceremonies that contradict their beliefs. They simply want the right to say, “We don’t wanna be forced to participate in those ceremonies.” So I was disappointed that you could see Christians and their businesses face discrimination in Indiana.

I hope the legislators will fix that, rectify that. Chuck, there used to be a bipartisan consensus in this country around religious liberty saying that as Americans we don’t all have to agree with each other, but we should respect each other’s rights and freedoms. And that’s what this debate is about. Are we gonna use government to force people to contradict their own sincerely held beliefs.

CHUCK TODD: Well, the debate, I guess, is about the line on freedom and a personal conviction versus how you conduct yourself in a business. So you think it’s okay based on religious conviction for a business to deny services to a same-sex couple?

BOBBY JINDAL: Well, Chuck, we’re not talking’ about restaurants denying service to people who wanna come and have dinner. We’re not talking about day-to-day routine commercial transactions. We’re talking about a very specific example here of business owners, of florists, of musicians, of caterers who are being forced to either pay thousands of dollars or close their businesses if they don’t wanna participate in a wedding ceremony that contradicts their religious beliefs.

So in that instance, yeah, I think part of the First Amendment means that we allow individuals to obey their conscience, to obey their religious beliefs.

The discussion continued past this clip, though, where Todd and Jindal debate other specific instances of conflict between religious claims and public accommodation. Todd clearly did his homework, researching pending legislation in Louisiana to force Jindal to speak to specifics. Jindal also clearly prepared for it, adeptly reframing the issue from broad discrimination to emphasizing RFRA as a type of conscientious-objector framework on specific events:

CHUCK TODD: As you know, this could end up on your desk there. State Representative Mike Johnson in your state has filed a bill that would allow private businesses to refuse to recognize same-sex marriage, according to the Times Picayune, should it become legal in Louisiana. And of course we may find that out in June in the Supreme Court.

The legislation would allow a private company to not offer the same benefits to legally recognized same-sex married couples as other married couples. So this is the beyond just denying services as a business. This would be also denying benefits to an employee who happens to be in a same-sex marriage. Are you gonna be able to support a bill that does that?

BOBBY JINDAL: Look, let me see the bill actually. Our session starts in a couple weeks. I wanna look at the bill. I’m always in favor of defending religious liberty. Look, you’re now raising issues regarding federal employee laws and benefit laws. Let me look at the details of the bill.

I am in general though very supportive other defending religious liberty. And I think we can do that without condoning discrimination. I don’t think those two values are mutually exclusive. And I think that’s what this debate has been really about. I think we can have religious liberty without having discrimination.

I think it’s possible to have both. And it’s desirable to have both in our society. We need to remember this is not a new debate. The founding fathers recognized the importance of religious liberty. They put in the First Amendment in the Constitution. They anticipated some of these conflicts. They came down on the side of religious liberty. Indeed religious liberty is why we have the United States. We as a country didn’t create religious liberty. Religious liberty created our country.

Well, yes. Public accommodation laws serve a compelling state interest, but the question is whether those should apply when a vendor has to participate in a specific event. RFRA allows for a balancing test to take place, but it doesn’t guarantee the outcome of the dispute. It just requires a stricter level of scrutiny on government actions.

CHUCK TODD: Are you against the local ordinance New Orleans that has a protection for LGBT citizens in it from discrimination from housing and employment?

BOBBY JINDAL: Well, a couple of things, Chuck. I don’t think certainly that there should be discrimination against anybody in housing and employment. That’s not what my faith teaches me. I don’t think that’s appropriate. And I think the good news is our society is moving in a direction of more tolerance.

My concern about creating special legal protections is historically in our country we’ve only done that in extraordinary circumstances. And it doesn’t appear to me where at one of those moments today. I will say this. I think there are many that turn to the heavy hand of government to solve society’s problems too easily.

I think that instead, we need to be working with people on their hearts and minds. And I have faith and confidence in the people of America and that people of New Orleans and that people of Louisiana to not tolerate discrimination, to not support businesses that wanna support discrimination. So absolutely we need to have a society where we’re not discriminating against people. I do think we need to be very careful about creating special rights.

Once again, Todd’s conflating public accommodation laws in an even broader manner. Courts have ruled in the past on this point: equal housing laws serve a compelling state interest. The RFRA defense wouldn’t apply in those cases.  Besides, New Orleans’ statutes don’t have anything to do with the state government. In principle, Jindal argues against expanding the number of special treatment categories, but it’s up to the citizens of New Orleans whether that regulation suits them. Either way, the relationship to RFRA is entirely moot.

Todd returns to same-sex marriage at the end of this part of the interview, and Jindal again reframes it back to what RFRA would actually address from Todd’s context of broad discrimination:

CHUCK TODD: All right so if the Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage, so it’ll be legal in all 50 states come June perhaps, but you believe these exceptions, that businesses should be able to decide whether or not to serve these folks based on their religious conviction?

BOBBY JINDAL: Well, again, it’s not serving. I’m not saying a restaurant should be able to turn away a couple that wants to come in and eat there in their restaurant.

CHUCK TODD: But that restaurant should not have to cater their wedding. They have to serve them in their restaurant, but they should not have to cater their wedding.

BOBBY JINDAL: If it’s a sincerely held religious belief, that it offends the owner’s beliefs to participate in that wedding. So absolutely. I don’t think the government should be able to force somebody to contradict their own sincerely held religious beliefs to participate in a wedding ceremony. And that used to be a bipartisan consensus. That didn’t use to be a partisan issue in our state, in our country.

Note that this last response is a summation of what RFRA does. It tests claims to ensure that they are sincerely held, an important point in any court cases. It also applies only to specific applications; RFRA has not ever been used to uphold broad discrimination against protected categories of people, and it’s not going to do so in the future.

Regardless of where one comes out on this debate, Jindal did a masterful job of anticipating the exaggerated context of the media framing of RFRA and rebutting it at every turn. It’s quite a lesson. Let’s hope others are paying attention.

The rest of the interview can be viewed here. Look for a Jindal announcement in June: