In 2014, Arizona's so-called religious freedom bill never stood a chance. The bill sought to give individuals and businesses exemptions from laws that burdened their religious beliefs, but was criticized for being too broadly worded -- with all sorts of legal loopholes and the possibility of legalizing discrimination against people because of their sexuality or gender identity. It was opposed by a host of companies, both Arizona's Republican U.S. Senators, Mitt Romney, and even three of the Republican lawmakers who originally voted for it but changed their mind. When Gov. Jan Brewer (R) vetoed the bill six days after it was passed, it seemed like the end of the road for such legislation. It was opposed by a host of companies, both its Republican U.S. Senators, Mitt Romney, and even three of the Republican lawmakers who originally voted for it but changed their mind.
But, get ready because the battle over religious freedom is back. Brewer may have backed down but Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) has taken up the fight, and Indiana is turning into the battleground over religious freedom that Arizona never was.
While Indiana has begun to feel the heat from businesses (and the NCAA, which is hosting the Final Four in Indianapolis next week), it doesn't face two particular pressures Arizona did: (1) hosting a Super Bowl the following year and (2) a pre-existing narrative that it's an intolerant state. Arizona already lost Super Bowl hosting duties once before, in 1993, because it didn't recognize Martin Luther King, Jr., Day as a state holiday. And coupled with the furor over SB 1070, the controversial immigration enforcement law Brewer signed in 2010, the state was on the verge of becoming known for intolerance, not a good thing for business and tourism. Brewer said she vetoed the bill because it would have created more problems than it solved, but it didn't hurt that the state's economy also could have suffered.
But since the Arizona veto, religious freedom has also had two major victories: 1) the Supreme Court's decision in the Hobby Lobby case giving the company the right to exercise religious beliefs when it came to contraception and 2) Utah's religious freedom bill which passed with support from LGBT groups.
Pence mentioned the Hobby Lobby case in his statement about his state's bill, and said that while the Court upheld the Religious Freedom Restoration Act at the national level, it didn't protect at the state and local. He positioned his bill as an extension of federal law signed by a Democrat, President Clinton.
The Utah bill shows there is a middle ground for religious and LGBT protections, but it's not necessarily a blueprint for other states since it's specifically tailored to the state's largest religion, Mormonism. It exempts things like religious organization-owned housing (like Church-owned Brigham Young University) and Boy Scouts (the Church participates heavily in scouting). Groups like HRC and Equality Utah supported the measure, but the response from social conservatives was muted, in part because it didn't exempt your cakebakers and photographers.
But Utah's bill is in line with how a majority of Americans feel about the issue. When you ask about specific religious exemptions, people are more supportive than when asked about broadly allowing businesses to refuse services to people because of their sexuality. A January Associated Press poll found 57 percent of Americans think wedding-related businesses should be allowed to refuse service to same-sex couples for religious reasons.
But when asked more generally if any businesses, not just wedding related, should be allowed to refuse service to gays and lesbians, a majority are opposed, according to an April Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Indiana's bill is much more broadly worded than Utah's, and so it could be in trouble from a public opinion standpoint. But the landscape is different than it was for Brewer's Arizona veto, which might be why, despite the controversy the Grand Canyon state experienced, Pence signed his bill and sees this as a fight he can win.