In the name of “religious freedom” the Indiana state legislature passed and the Governor signed into law a bill that state politicians claim is designed to uphold freedom of religion in the state of Indiana. Over the past week the opposition to the law has been fierce. Mainly opponents have stressed that the law could very well deny gay and lesbian people the same freedoms and rights as non-gays and non-lesbians. The law states that services and opportunities in the state of Indiana can be denied to persons based on the service provider’s religious beliefs. The presumption is based on past track records in other states where gay persons have been denied some of the same services offered to others.
The opposition is well justified, but it goes far beyond what might happen to people in the gay and lesbian community. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that gays and lesbians may not be as severely threatened nor injured as some others. Blind people, for example, who use guide dogs and other persons with disabilities who use dogs for assistance have the potential to be severely limited to transportation and other services because of this law.
Throughout the United States there are many taxi drivers who profess the Islamic faith. Many of these drivers have outright denied their services to blind persons with guide dogs because they say that allowing a dog into their cab violates their religious beliefs as the Muslim church identifies dogs as “unclean”. Many blind people have had to face the challenges of service denial by Muslims based on religious grounds. Up to now the rights of blind passengers to take their guide dogs with them into taxis have mostly been upheld due to the provisions of the Americans with disabilities act and state laws.
Now Indiana has opened the door to full discrimination against any blind person who uses a guide dog. It should be pointed out that the Islamic faith makes an exception for animals that help “the sick or injured”, but this has usually been ignored by taxi drivers within the Islamic community who choose not to want to have a guide dog in their vehicle. While I do not regard myself or any other blind person as “sick” I do believe that I have the right and should have the right at all times to take my guide dog with me wherever I travel. If anyone denies me access to any service or any location or to anything where the public is allowed because of my guide dog then I believe that my civil rights have been violated. So the question comes down to which is more important, guaranteeing my civil rights and the civil rights of others who use guide dogs or any other service dogs or is “religious freedom” more important? Personally, I thought that this question was answered over 200 years ago when the concept of “separation of church and state” was made part of this country’s beliefs. On September 11, 2001 so-called “religious extremists” attacked us as a country and in fact attacked all of humanity by destroying the World Trade Center with hijacked aircraft. I and my guide dog, Roselle, were in the World Trade Center working on the 78th floor on that day. In the days and months that followed we all learned that no matter what Al Qaeda and other thugs professed we were not facing a religious attack as most persons in the Islamic faith believe in the same concepts of peace, love and harmony as the rest of us around the world. In this country we have worked hard to defend the rights of Muslims to practice their religious beliefs just as we have defended the rights of Christians, people in the Jewish faith, and people in other religions here and abroad to practice their beliefs.
I have no problem with anyone practicing whatever faith and legitimate religious beliefs they choose, but we as a country have made it clear that the civil rights of all are sacrosanct. What someone chooses to do within their recognized church buildings is one thing, but places such as taxis and shops are not part of a church. Either every member of the public is welcome or no one is welcome.
In the case of blind people let us be clear. If a blind person is told that their dog is not welcome somewhere it is not the dog that is being denied since it is not the dog that has civil rights. Instead, it is the blind person whose rights are being denied and who is being prevented from exercising their freedom to travel and go where the rest of the public goes while using their chosen means of travel assistance, namely a guide dog. The same argument does apply to gaze, lesbians, other persons with disabilities, and anyone who happens to be different. Anyone who interacts with the public no matter where nor how can have the “right “to decide to treat one class of persons in a different manner than anyone else. While blind persons using guide dogs are already protected under the ADA as well as state laws the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” opens a door to possible discrimination. We should not accept this.
Indiana’s law is absolutely wrong based on the social, economic, and other basic principles upon which this country was founded and has operated since it declared independence from England in 1776. I call on the state legislature of Indiana and Indiana’s governor to repeal the “religious freedom” law and instead, if they need to pass some sort of measure, enact legislation to more firmly guarantee the rights of all persons who are blind, who have some other disability, or who are different in some other way. The law must include appropriate teeth to make it clear that treating any of us differently or in any inappropriate way is unacceptable in the state of Indiana. If Indiana continues on its present course its citizens will suffer because of ill advised actions taken by its legislature and executive branches. I understand some other states, such as Arkansas, are considering similar legislation. If Arkansas passes a similar bill what will happen to Walmart since its corporate headquarters are in that state?