Organizers of a mainline Protestant church gathering say they will not move their 2017 convention from Indianapolis due to a hotly contested new Religious Freedom Restoration Act as initially planned.
Leaders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which is based in Indianapolis, wrote Gov. Mike Pence (R) urging him to veto the proposal. The Disciples of Christ once supported a 22-year-old federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, though the specifics of Indiana’s law have become divisive.
Indiana’s new law 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. Supporters say Indiana’s measure supports religious liberty while opponents fear it could open up grounds for people to decline services for same-sex weddings.
Church leaders original said they would move their 6,000-person General Assembly because of concerns that some members “might experience legally sanctioned bias and rejection once so common on the basis of race.” The move reflects a larger push in the state and across the nation 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.”
Pence urged urged state lawmakers to pass legislation making it clear “that this law does not give businesses the right to deny services to anyone.” Church leaders announced on April 13 that they reversed their decision.
“Amendments were signed into law by Governor Mike Pence on April 2 clarifying that the law cannot be used to open the door to discrimination,” the church said in a statement. “It cannot supersede local human rights ordinances as was feared.”
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.
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. The Disciples of Christ once joined a broad coalition of religious leaders on both the right and the left who supported RFRA on a federal level when it was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
Questions over religious freedom have become more divisive within a larger debate over same-sex marriage. Indiana’s new religious freedom law has escalated to national prominence in the past week, raising questions about the future of religious freedom laws and gay rights.
(This story has been updated.)
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