Understanding Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration” bill


Governor Pence speaks at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference on February 27.

By Emily Dickson

In the past few weeks alone, Apple has pulled out of the Big Data conference scheduled for the end of April in Indiana, the NCAA Mid-American Conference has announced a boycott all events and championships in Indiana, and many celebrities are cancelling performances in Indiana, all whilst tweeting profusely against the new “Religious Freedom Restoration” bill recently passed in the state. Despite the positive name, many fear that the bill “legalizes discrimination” against people based on their sexual orientation.

“As a Hoosier, I’m deeply saddened and embarrassed. A government exists to protect its citizens; instead, it is legalizing their oppression,” John Green, author and YouTuber tweeted on March 26.

Apple CEO Tim Cook expressed similar sentiments in the Washington Post. “I have great reverence for religious freedom,” he said. “As a child, I was baptized in a Baptist church, and faith has always been an important part of my life. I was never taught, nor do I believe, that religion should be used as an excuse to discriminate.”

With developments occurring constantly, it may be difficult to understand what has been happening in Indiana since Governor Mike Pence signed the law into action on March 26.

After the Indiana Senate approved the bill 40-10, Pence signed the “Religious Freedom Restoration” Act. With an 80 percent Republican majority in the state senate, the passing of conservative bills is commonplace in Indiana. Pence was accompanied at the private signing event by conservative leaders from the state, as well as religious representatives from the Jewish and Christian faiths.

“This was a measure that frankly, Indiana should have enacted many years ago,” Pence said to Eric Bradner of CNN. “It gives our courts guidance about evaluating government action and puts the highest standard — it essentially says, if a government is going to compel you to act in a way that violates your religious beliefs, there has to be a compelling state interest.”

Both Pence’s statements, as well as the actual law, people argue, have been interpreted differently, as they are not specific. The text of the law states:

“A person whose exercise of religion has been substantially burdened, or is likely to be substantially burdened, by a violation of this chapter may assert the violation or impending violation as a claim or defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding, regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding.”

Some say the law models the federal religious freedom law, which historically has prevented the government from restricting people’s religious practices, such as Native American ceremonies challenged because of drug use. Despite this statement, the Indiana law also extends the right of religious protection to businesses. The new legislation allows businesses that cite religious beliefs to deny service to same-sex couples.

“I’d do the same thing again. It’s my belief. It’s our belief. It’s what we grew up on,” Kevin O’Connor, owner of Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Indiana said to Tom Coyne of the Huffington Post. O’Connor recently denied catering a gay wedding based on his beliefs, although he says he does serve people of all sexual orientations. “I’m just sorry it comes to this because [I do not] dislike any of those people. I don’t hold any grudges.”

Under the federal religious freedom law, a business cannot deny service to a LGBT person citing religious beliefs because of the national anti-discrimination law. The problem is, Indiana does not have a statewide anti-discrimination law. Pence argues that the law was not passed to “legalize discrimination.”

The governor took action to clarify the law, but showed no interest in passing legislation to protect LGBTs from discrimination. Without referencing gay rights directly, Pence said during a news conference with CNN, “this is not about any contemporary issue.”

On April 2, Pence signed a revised version of the law, though opponents still argue that it does not go far enough.
The revised portion states:

“This chapter does not: (I) 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 service.”

Despite the change to the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” Americans are still waiting to witness the effects of the legislation. The events of the past month in Indiana have rekindled the debate over rights for LGBT Americans, as marches and boycotts against the law occur as far from Indiana as Portland, Oregon, which banned travel to Indiana for a week.