Joke not very funny

Published 1:48 pm Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Where is Leslie Knope when we need her?

Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which purports to protect Christians from being forced to apply the Golden Rule to gays and lesbians at work, resists sober interpretation. The only way to understand it is as government-sponsored fan fiction for NBC’s recently departed “Parks & Recreation.”

For those of you who don’t like fun things and may have missed the show, “Parks & Recreation” depicted the goings-on of a city government department in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. Amy Poehler played Leslie Knope, who started out as the deputy parks director and ascended in the series finale to a two-term governor of Indiana. She would have vetoed this, and we know this because she once presided over the marriage of two boy penguins.

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The local moral gendarmes took offense, first demanding that Knope annul the penguins’ marriage. When she refused, arguing that the penguin wedding was “cute,” they demanded she be fired. If you are the sort who doesn’t like the idea of making fun of clenched-hearted scolds who see a gay penguin wedding as a sign of the apocalypse, then do yourself a favor and don’t watch “Parks & Recreation” on Netflix.

Just to clarify, two penguins of the same sex cannot legally marry in Indiana, but two humans of the same gender have been able to get hitched in the Hoosier State since 2014. This freaks out the kind of people who would get upset at a gay penguin wedding, and right now they control the Indiana legislature. That’s how we ended up with a law allowing businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians if doing so would conflict with their religious faith.

Apparently some people are so busy loving their neighbor that they don’t have any time for dudes who love dudes. As far as I know, this religious protection does not extend to other sins listed in the Bible. For example, there is no state-sanctioned discrimination against those who bear false witness, but that could just be the politicians carving out a loophole for themselves.

For those of us who loved the good-hearted characters who formed the core of that show for seven seasons, the idea of Leslie Knope taking on Gov. Mike Pence begs for a reboot of the television series.

He is behaving like a comic foil for Knope, insisting, “This bill is not about discrimination” while signing it into law in private. When asked, he could not name one actual wrong that this law would have righted. We’re only slaying hypothetical dragons here.

One imagines what sport “Parks & Recreation” would have made of this. Would the Pawnee City Council have debated installing “gaydar” at city hall? Would Tom Haverford, played by Aziz Ansari, have been refused service at The Glitter Factory because he didn’t look straight enough?

We have political fiction to tell the stories about government and politics in a way that the news can’t capture. The newspaper can tell me about the companies that are canceling investments in Indiana. ESPN can tell me Charles Barkley wants the NCAA to pull the Final Four from Indianapolis.

The nightly news can show me the thousands of protestors outside the Indiana statehouse. But only Leslie Knope can dramatize the shameful absurdity of this situation.

Instead, all we have is ourselves. This law puts the power of the government behind a dime-store version of Christianity. We don’t need a television show to tell us that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is a joke. The problem is that it’s just not all that funny.


Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.