Does the widespread reaction to Indiana religious freedom law mean there is growing intolerance for religious viewpoints? Two prominent essays in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times make the case that it does. 

"The paradox is that even as America has become more tolerant of gays, many activists and liberals have become ever-more intolerant of anyone who might hold more traditional cultural or religious views," the Wall Street Journal commented in a March 30 editorial.

The editorial said political liberals once defended the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act's legal standard as "a good-faith effort to help society compromise on contentious moral disputes." Congress had passed the 1993 legislation by an overwhelming majority and it was signed into law by Democratic president Bill Clinton.

The American Civil Liberties Union was among backers of the federal law, intended to restore legal protections removed by a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

The editorial charged that opponents' renunciation of the act 20 years later "says more about their new intolerance than about anyone in Indiana."

"In the increasingly bitter battle between religious liberty and the liberal political agenda, religion is losing," the Wall Street Journal lamented.

Gov. Mike Spence signed the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law on March 26, saying the bill ensures religious liberty is "fully protected under Indiana law."

The legislation, similar to the federal act as well as legislation in 19 other states, declares that state and local governments may not "substantially burden" a person's right to the exercise of religion unless they demonstrate doing so is "essential to further a compelling governmental interest," and they must use "the least restrictive" means to further that interest.

Although the bill does not mention sexual orientation, opponents depicted it as an "anti-gay" bill. Several celebrities and leading CEOs called for a boycott of the state. Many former backers of the federal act also criticized the Indiana version.

Some critics of the Indiana law oppose its alleged protections for people with wedding-related businesses who cannot support same-sex "weddings" without violating their beliefs. The Wall Street Journal noted that the Indiana law would still require a business owner sued for declining to take part in such a ceremony to prove that his religious convictions were being "substantially burdened."

While some critics of the Indiana law have said it is broader than the federal act because it allows a potential religious defense in private legal disputes, the Wall Street Journal editorial noted four federal appellate circuit courts have interpreted the federal law to apply to private disputes. It also noted that most courts have ruled that the government has a compelling interest in enforcing anti-discrimination laws.

The Indiana law also drew a defense from David Brooks, a New York Times columnist who backs "gay marriage."

"As a matter of principle, it is simply the case that religious liberty is a value deserving our deepest respect, even in cases where it leads to disagreements as fundamental as the definition of marriage," he said in a March 31 essay.

"At their best, Americans have always believed that people should have the widest possible latitude to exercise their faith as they see fit or not exercise any faith."

Brooks said that there are "many wise and deeply humane people whose most deeply held religious beliefs contain heterosexual definitions of marriage."

"These people are worthy of tolerance, respect and gentle persuasion."
He said that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act emphasized that any government infringement on religious liberty should have a "compelling reason" and should do so in the "least intrusive way possible."

Brooks worried that the "phenomenal achievement" of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was now "going off the rails" due to the firestorm over the Indiana bill.

"If the opponents of that law were arguing that the Indiana statute tightens the federal standards a notch too far, that would be compelling.
But that's not the argument the opponents are making," he said.

"The opponents seem to be saying there is no valid tension between religious pluralism and equality."

Failure to balance religious liberty and civil rights, Brooks said, means "the cause of gay rights will be associated with coercion, not liberation."

The columnist endorsed "creative accommodation" of disagreements over values.