Indiana, a largely conservative state that votes pretty reliably Republican in presidential races, has become symbolic in a clash between politics and culture, religious rights and LGBT rights.
Last week, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed into law a controversial religious freedom bill: Opponents are concerned that it could allow discrimination against gay people. The law in question is called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, more commonly known as RFRA.
The new law allows corporations to make an RFRA claim, expanding the number and type of groups that could make those claims in court. The law also makes it clear that RFRA can be used in lawsuits between individuals, when those claims usually apply only to conflicts between the government and individuals. However, it’s still unclear how exactly it could be used in court.
Lawmakers are attempting to address the firestorm over the law that has prompted some convention organizers and businesses to threaten to cancel plans in the state over concerns of discrimination. The law has drawn attention from across the nation, as Seattle and San Francisco mayors have urged a boycott of Indiana.
University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock, one of the nation’s foremost law-and-religion scholars, says the conversation has escalated over misunderstandings over previous cases. RFRA has become a national controversy in the past year since Kansas and Arizona considered and abandoned religious freedom legislation. And last summer, RFRA was raised during last year’s Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court.
“There’s bad behavior on both sides. Gay rights groups, as they become stronger and stronger and get more support for same-sex marriage keep demanding more and more. Now they don’t want any religious exceptions for anybody,” Laycock said. “Republican legislators are pandering to the base and saying we need to protect against gay marriage. These statements from the right fuel the outrage on the left.”
When gay marriage became legal in the state after an appeals court struck down bans in Indiana and Wisconsin in 2014, some religious groups felt they needed added legal protections. The groups favoring the law cite the need to protect photographers, wedding coordinators, cake bakers and other wedding industry employees from being forced to provide services for a same-sex marriage, citing their religious beliefs on marriage.
The federal RFRA law was created in 1993 with religious minorities in mind, groups like Native Americans, Hasidic Jews and the Amish, Laycock said, but these cases are testing new ground.
“These are religious liberty disputes unlike any we’ve had in our history. It’s never been illegal to practice core teachings of the largest religions,” Laycock said. “If you’re the wedding planner or the photographer, you’re being asked to make it the best wedding it can be, you’re being asked to promote the wedding and the marriage it celebrates. They understand the wedding to be inherently religious and a same-sex marriage is sacrilegious and inherently prohibited. It’s the activists on both sides that have gotten this so heated.”
On Monday, state Republican leaders said they are looking at options to clarify the law. House Speaker Brian Bosma said in a press conference he’s looking to remove the misconception that the religious freedom law would allow denial of services to anyone.
“What we had hoped for with the bill was a message of inclusion, inclusion of all religious beliefs,” Bosma said. “What instead has come out as a message of exclusion, and that was not the intent.”
Indianapolis is home to several important businesses, including Eli Lilly and Angie’s List, both of which have expressed concerns. The Lilly Endowment, which is separate from the drug company but whose stock is the endowment’s foremost asset, is one of the world’s largest private philanthropic foundations and contributes to several religious organizations.
Indianapolis has also become a cultural and athletic hub in some ways and hosts several large conventions. The city hosts several important cultural events, including the NCAA tournament (the NCAA headquarters is based in Indianapolis) and Gen Con, a large gaming convention, draws some 50,000 to the city every summer. The Disciples of Christ, which is headquartered in the city, has threatened to pull its convention.
Conservatives dominate Indiana state politics, with Republicans controlling the state House, Senate and governor’s office. Indianapolis, the largest city and capital, stands apart from the rest of the state politically, however. Those who live in Indianapolis tend to vote Democratic more than the rest of the state. Concerns there helped set off a firestorm inside the state’s capitol that has extended to the entire nation.
(This story has been updated.)
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