Indiana just passed a law that could allow for religious-based discrimination, but Gov. Mike Pence wants you to believe the measure he signed won’t cause any harm.
Yesterday, Pence signed Senate Bill 101, which is based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a 1993 law intended to protect religious minorities. Like the federal version, Indiana’s RFRA states that the government cannot substantially burden religious practice unless it has a very good reason for doing so. Since some of the language is vague, however, many are worried it could offer cover for those who want to discriminate against LGBT persons.
Pence tried to put those fears to rest.
“This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it,” he said in a statement. “In fact, it does not even apply to disputes between private parties unless government action is involved. For more than twenty years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation’s anti-discrimination laws, and it will not in Indiana.”
The reality is, until someone actually tries to use SB 101 as a justification for discrimination, we won’t really know what Indiana’s new law means for residents. But given that a proposed amendment to SB 101 that would have spelled out that defending civil rights and stopping discrimination are compelling government interests was soundly defeated, it's easy to be nervous about the intent of Indiana's RFRA.
Then there is the problematic background of one of SB 101's authors -- State Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn). Kruse is best known for incessantly introducing bills that would force public school students to study creationism – even though the U.S. Supreme Court has said that isn’t allowed. He has pushed his pet project repeatedly over the last 16 years, offering up anti-science bills from 1999-2001, then again in 2011, 2012 and 2014. None passed.
But creationism isn’t Kruse’s only foray into bad public school policy. In 2013, he filed a bill that would have required all students to say the Lord’s Prayer, a move that clearly would have gone against the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision in Engel v. Vitale, in which mandatory prayers were ruled unconstitutional.
So given Kruse’s history, is it really reasonable to assume, as Pence has, that he was not trying to advance a fundamentalist agenda with Indiana’s RFRA?
It seems a lot of people haven’t been fooled. Before the bill was signed, considerable backlash brewed as religious and business interests came together and threatened to boycott the Hoosier State.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), headquartered in Indianapolis, expressed reservation about holding future events there, such as the NCAA Men’s Final Four basketball tournament.
“The NCAA national office and our members are deeply committed to providing an inclusive environment for all our events,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a statement. “We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week’s Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill. Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.”
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which has held its annual convention in Indianapolis three times since 1989 and is scheduled to do so again in 2017, threated to find a new location that is “hospitable and welcome to all of our attendees” before Pence signed the RFRA bill.
And Salesforce.com, a cloud computing firm based in San Francisco that purchased an Indiana-based firm last year for $2.5 billion, has promised it will be “canceling all programs that require our customers/employees to travel to Indiana to face discrimination,” according to a tweet from the company’s CEO.
It’s important to keep in mind that until one of these threatened boycotts actually comes to fruition, we won’t know for sure what the fallout will be from this measure.
But is it worth the risk, Indiana? The U.S. Constitution already provides substantial protections for religious freedom, and Indiana has done just fine since a federal court declared in 1997 that the federal RFRA does not apply to the states. And given that Indiana's ban on same-sex marriage was recently struck down, it can only be assumed that lawmakers wanted to create special protections for anyone who has a problem with LGBT persons – as long as the basis for that animosity is “sincere religious belief.”
Time will tell on this one, so keep your eye on Indiana.