[Photo by AndyLindgren (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]
By John Kaufman
Here’s a modest proposal: for the sake of doing the right thing, for acting on principle, for placing morality, democracy and anti-discrimination above the game of basketball, the University of Wisconsin should not send its men’s basketball team to the Final Four if it is played in Indianapolis as currently scheduled.
Yes, it would be a great sacrifice on the part of the university and student athletes involved, with outraged cries of “Unfair to athletes!” from fans feeling they’ve been treated unfairly. Yes, it would do damage to the sports prestige of UW and hurt public relations, at least in the short-term. Yes, UW may stand to lose a lot of Final Four-hoopla money. Does any of this matter? Not a jot.
As written, Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” allows for discrimination against sexual orientations that do not meet with the approval of the God of religious fundamentalists, because the law allows businesses and associations other than churches to be granted the rights of a religious person. Despite what the U.S. Supreme Court has asserted, God did not create a corporation in the Garden of Eden, nor was a corporation formed from Adam’s other rib, which ought to be supremely obvious if one has read Genesis. Nor does God in any denomination currently govern the U.S., according to our Constitution, and personal religious freedom needs no restoring, thanks to our Constitution. Personally, you can still worship any way you want, as long as it doesn’t infringe upon the democratic rights of anyone else. But allowing government to allow a business to refuse benefits or services to some based upon the businesses’ religious belief affects both employees and customers and puts government in bed with religion, a coupling known as theocracy. This is the sort of intercourse our democracy should avoid.
Speaking through his press secretary, Gov. Walker, wherever he is, provided a boldly evasive statement implying, kind of, his support for Indiana’s brand of theocracy: “As a matter of principle, Gov. Walker believes in broad religious freedom and the right for Americans to exercise their religion and act on their conscience.” The phrase “exercise their religion and act on their conscience” displays both bad grammar and, worse, a poor understanding of diversity: there are, of course, many religions (including no religion) and as many consciences as people. Indiana’s law enshrines fundamentalist Christian (and any other religious) prejudice against LGBT folks for it offers no explicit protection, as do most other such unnecessary laws, against such discrimination.
Both the NCAA and the Big Ten have issued vague statements about thinking about what they might do about this Indiana injustice. To put it bluntly, they are concerned, and may take strong action at some future time, maybe at their next picnic. Meanwhile, the Final Four in Indiana must go on.
There is still time for Indiana Republicans and their governor to undo/delete/refresh the law, but doing so would mean altering what they intended to do by writing it and passing it in the first place: let a conservative brand of religion trump democracy, a backdoor way of striking back against legal same-sex marriage. UW could help spur Indiana to action by threatening not to participate unless the law is scrapped or significantly changed. This truly bold and brave action would be in keeping with Wisconsin’s long-lost but not totally eradicated morally progressive tradition.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank has issued a statement on the Indiana discrimination law:
“Diversity and inclusion of all people are core principles at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
The Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act mirrors laws in place in a number of states and at the federal level. But I take the concerns that have been raised very seriously.
I look forward to a discussion with my Big Ten counterpart presidents and chancellors about the impact of the Indiana law.”
Very serious concern and discussion are very good, but few things get attention like actually refusing to do things. Having achieved a Final Four berth, the UW basketball team is in a position to do more than gain Sports page headlines. An Indiana boycott would be very instructive for the athletes who are still, after all, students and citizens of a democracy. Is such a boycott in our religiously sporty culture likely to happen? I think it more likely that Gov. Walker will join the Democratic Party and swap hidden email stories with Hillary Clinton. But acting on moral and democratic principle is sometimes very difficult and very necessary.
Update: Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said today he now wants to fix the bill in question, though he still asserts there is nothing wrong with the RFRA and blames “sloppy reporting” for the national uproar. This does not bode well for any genuine fix.
Update II— UConn basketball coaches announce they won’t attend Final Four in protest of Indiana’s law.