Organizers of a mainline Protestant church gathering say they’re considering moving events from Indianapolis due to a bill that could protect business owners who want to decline to provide services for same-sex couples.
Leaders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which is based in Indianapolis, wrote Wednesday to Gov. Mike Pence (R) pressing him to veto the proposal. On Monday, Pence said he planned to sign the bill into law.
Church leaders say they are reconsidering plans to hold their 6,000-person General Assembly in Indianapolis in 2017 because of concerns that some members “might experience legally sanctioned bias and rejection once so common on the basis of race.” The move is part of a larger effort to use business to pressure state leaders on the issue.
“As a Christian church, we are particularly sensitive to the values of the One we follow – one who sat at (the) table with people from all walks of life, and loved them all,” the letter states. “Our church is diverse in point of view, but we share a value for an open Lord’s Table.”
Indiana’s Senate Bill 101 would prohibit the government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion, unless it can demonstrate that the burden has a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling governmental interest. It is modeled on a 22-year-old federal law called the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, which played a key role in the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision in 2014.
The Disciples of Christ, which had about 600,000 members in 2009, has held its annual convention in Indianapolis three times since 1989, according to the Indianapolis Star. Todd Adams, the associate general minister and vice president of the denomination, told the Star he expects up to 8,000 people to attend its convention in 2017, which could have an estimated economic impact on the city of about $5.9 million.
But he said the church may open bidding again to find a new host city in 2019. The two finalists — Kansas City and St. Louis in Missouri — have similar state laws to the one proposed in Indiana.
The letter was sent by the denomination’s general minister and president Sharon E. Watkins, its division of overseas ministries Julia Brown Karimu and its home missions President Ronald J. Degges.
A large gaming convention called Gen Con also threatened to pull its annual 50,000-person event from Indianapolis.
The bill has been controversial in many states across the nation. Even in Indianapolis, Republican Mayor Greg Ballard said the bill sends the “wrong message.” Supporters say the measure supports religious freedom while opponents fear discrimination against LGBT people.
Jason Collins, an athlete who publicly came out as gay after the 2013 NBA season, will be in Indianapolis as a Yahoo Sports analyst covering the NCAA Final Four and publicly questioned the bill.
The question of whether the religious rights of business owners also extend to their for-profit companies has been a a divisive issue within a larger debate over same-sex marriage. For instance, some say the bill could protect a cake baker who objects to making a cake for a same-sex wedding.
A growing list of cities are passing gay anti-discrimination ordinances, which has raised the ire of more conservative state houses. Several states have adopted similar laws.