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Protecting Religious Freedom or License to Discriminate?

New religious freedom laws cause controversy and backlash.

Indiana Gov Mike Pence

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, 2015
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

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On March 26, 2015, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law. The new law caused an immediate backlash and boycott by those who felt it could be used to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals. Mayors in cities such as Seattle and San Francisco banned all official travel to Indiana. Businesses like Salesforce and Angie's List stopped plans to expand within the state. In fact, Angie's List cancelled a multi-million dollar expansion of their headquarters in Indianapolis.

Thousands of people within the state protested the new law. Some Indiana business owners put signs in their windows that read "we serve everyone." The hashtag #BoycottIndiana trended on twitter. Gov. Pence defended the law in interviews and press conferences, saying that the bill was not about discrimination. During an interview with ABC News, he said, "We are not going to change this law."

Clarifying the Law

However, the following week, on April 2, Gov. Pence signed an amendment that he said would "clarify" the law. The amendment, which easily passed both Indiana's House and Senate, directly addressed sexual orientation and gender identity. In fact, the amendment was the first time any Indiana law mentioned either term:

    "This chapter does not: (1) authorize a provider to refuse to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodations, goods, employment, or housing to any member or members of the general public on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or United States military services; (2) establish a defense to a civil action or criminal prosecution for refusal by a provider to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodations, goods, employment, or housing to any member or members of the general public on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or United States military Service."

After signing the amendment, Gov. Pence released a statement. "There will be some who think this legislation goes too far and some who think it does not go far enough, but as governor I must always put the interest of our state first and ask myself every day, ‘What is best for Indiana?’ I believe resolving this controversy and making clear that every person feels welcome and respected in our state is best for Indiana," Pence said in the statement.

Not the First State

Indiana wasn't the first state to pass this type of bill. In fact, as of early April 2015, twenty other states had similar bills. Some states have tried and failed. In Feb. 2014, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have allowed businesses in the state to deny service to gays and lesbians in the name of religious beliefs. After the veto, Brewer said in a news conference, "I sincerely believe that Senate Bill 1062 has the potential to create more problems than it purports to solve." That bill also sparked controversy and outrage from the LGBT community as well as civic leaders. Sen. John McCain urged Brewer to veto the bill.

During the Indiana backlash over its religious freedom bill, the Arkansas Senate passed a similar Religious Freedom Restoration Act, also known as the Conscience Protection Act, on March 31, 2015. Major businesses such as Apple, Acxiom, and Walmart publicly opposed the law. Doug McMillon, Walmart's CEO, urged Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson to veto the bill. The day after the Senate passed the bill, Gov. Hutchinson refused to sign it, asking for changes to the law's language. On April 3, Gov. Hutchinson signed the bill with his requested changes, changes similar to the amendment that had been added to Indiana's new law.

RFRA

Changes to the new laws in Arkansas and Indiana make them more similar to the federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993, signed by President Bill Clinton. RFRA "ensures that interests in religious freedom" are protected. At the time, it was passed to protect individuals from the government, specifically Native Americans who had been fired for smoking peyote, an act supported by Native American churches. RFRA forbids businesses to use the federal law as a form of discrimination.

Since RFRA, twenty-one states have now passed their own Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. Indiana and Arkansas are the latest. Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina are working on similar bills. However, the bills in Georgia and North Carolina have recently stalled, in part due to fears over a backlash similar to the one in Indiana.


—Jennie Wood