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'The Good Wife' Brilliantly Deconstructed the Argument For and Against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

By Dustin Rowles | TV | April 6, 2015 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | April 6, 2015 |

There was a lot going on in last night’s episode of The Good Wife with Alicia Florrick that — until the bombshell about voting irregularities dropped — didn’t add up to much, while the subplot concerning Kalinda gave us to yet another possibility for dismissing her character from the show, as expected at the end of the season.

But aside from all the personal dramatics, what I appreciated most about last night’s episode was a a good old-fashioned two-sided debate between very passionate, intelligent people on both sides of an issue.

That debate centered on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — or a version thereof — and what was remarkable about it was, once you reduced it to a legal argument rooted in the Constitution, it wasn’t as cut and dry as those of us on the progressive side of the spectrum might like to think. There are, it turns out, legitimate arguments in its favor beyond the simple homophobia that most of us see driving the law. Politically, I obviously wasn’t persuaded, but the way the episode deconstructed the legal basis for it was illuminating, and more importantly, it managed to break down the Constitutional basis for and against the law in a more reasoned, rational, and entertaining way than any cable news network has ever managed to do.

The subplot ultimately boiled down to a mock trial between the right (represented by Oliver Platt’s character, and his attorneys) and the left (Diane Lockhart). There was a lot of back and forth, initially, about where Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech butt heads, and where discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation comes in.

A baker can’t refuse to sell a wedding cake to a homosexual couple,” Diane argued, “because it’s refusing to sell to a couple for who they are.”

“What if a baker,” Platt’s side countered, “had no problem selling bear claws to a gay couple, but would sell them bear claws? … She isn’t, in fact, refusing to serve homosexuals. She just won’t do the one thing her religion says is a sin.”

The argument, initially, seemed hard to refute, until Diane shot back: “That’s insane. Selling them something they don’t want is the same as refusing service … if a vegetarian couple walks into a market, and you refuse to sell them vegetables, you are effectively denying them service.”

Point Diane.

Yes, but can the baker refuse to write “Congratulations Roger and Carl” on the cake based on freedom of speech?

No, because it’s not her speech. It’s the speech of the person ordering the cake.

But, what if a Christian walks into a baker shop, and orders a cake that says ‘God sends all gays to hell?” does the baker have to print that? (After all, it’s not the baker’s speech, it’s the Christian’s speech).

No, Diane says, because the baker is not objecting to a religion, but a point of view (I’m not sure about this, but I’ll take her word for it, because I’m assuming this point was as well researched as the others in the episode).

But aren’t Christians a protected class, the same as the gays, Platt’s minions ask?

No comment.

OK, but what about a Christian wedding planner who doesn’t want to stop a gay couple from getting married, but doesn’t want to be the one to plan it based on her belief that gay marriage is a sin?

Well, Diane argues in a very Aaron Sorkin-like fashion, Jesus never specifically condemns homosexuality in the Bible, but does condemn divorce. Does this mean that she won’t plan a wedding for people who have been divorced, either?


Ultimately, the judge’s decision was rooted not in the Constitution — because there are competing arguments on both the side of religion and free speech in favor and against — but on the basis of anti-discrimination laws. In other words, it was a political decision. In states where the people elect representative who do not pass anti-discrimination laws — like in Indiana — a bill like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passes because it chooses religion over speech, although we are quickly (and thankfully) seeing that it’s a politically unpopular (and self-destructive) decision.

However, while I love this tweet from Arrow’s Stephen Amell …

The Good Wife demonstrated why it’s not that quite that simple. There’s a legitimate argument rooted in the Constitution that gives the wedding planner the right to refuse service to a gay couple, just as there is a legitimate argument rooted in the Constitution that might compel a wedding planner to serve a gay couple.

In the end, it comes down to people, politics, and fairness. “The law has to see the personal side,” Diane argues. “Or else it’s meaningless.” However, as Oliver Platt countered, “religious accommodation must be made for people who choose to stand by their beliefs.”

Legally, where anti-discrimination laws do not exist, he’s not wrong. Politically, at least to my way of thinking, he is.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.