A couple weeks ago, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, a Republican, signed into law the extremely controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). This law would guarantee businesses the right to refuse service to individuals and use the freedom of religion as a defense if legal action were taken against said business owners.
At that moment, my entire home state received massive backlash from the American public, egged on by celebrities and specifically LGBT groups, who felt particularly targeted by the law. Conservatives who supported the law jumped to the defense of Governor Pence, citing the similar religious freedom law that President Bill Clinton enacted in 1993 and the nineteen other states that also have laws similar to Indiana’s new law.
Key word: similar. The national law signed by Clinton and eighteen of the nineteen states’ laws protect businesses’ right to religious freedom from government action. The Indiana RFRA, authored by Republican state senators Dennis Kruse, Scott Schneider, and Brent Steele (as well as being co-authored by my own state senator Liz Brown and others), allows for businesses and corporations to call upon the right to religious freedom as a defense in civil litigation between two private parties.
With this in mind, businesses would then be able to refuse services to certain customers based on their own religious beliefs and not have to worry about an impending lawsuit from the customers who were refused service. This backwards thinking was signed into law about two weeks, not a hundred years ago.
The reaction to Indiana’s RFRA was fierce. Celebrities from George Takei to Miley Cyrus (both of whom are notable LGBT rights advocates), organizations like the NCAA and Salesforce, and even the municipal governments of San Francisco and Seattle voiced their concerns about the new law and even threatened to boycott the entire state. A majority of Hoosiers, myself included, staunchly opposed the RFRA, while some still supported Governor Pence.
It wasn’t until a week later when Pence and Indiana Republicans realized the significant economic blow the Hoosier State could receive and “fixed” the law, clarifying that no person could be discriminated based on sexual orientation or gender identity, the first time these terms had been used in Indiana state laws.
I had a lot of time to think about the original law and what it meant for me as a gay man from Indiana. I just felt disappointed knowing that so much progress had been made in Indiana for the LGBT community (i.e. the legalization of same-sex marriage last summer and a series of anti-discrimination laws that were passed in cities across the state) and would be negated with the implementation of the RFRA, as if we took a few steps forward and one huge step back.
While discrimination was not the intention of the original RFRA, I knew there would be some asshole entrepreneur out there in the entire state of Indiana who would refuse to seat a lesbian couple at a restaurant or sell flowers to man who’d give them to his boyfriend or husband because the business owner’s religious convictions wouldn’t align with his or her customers’ “behavior.”
One could argue it’s a far-fetched scenario, but in a state like Indiana where a large number of the Christian right opposes same-sex marriages, relationships, acts, etc., it’s very likely. Just one violation of civil rights committed by a business owner would be an obvious injustice and would have happened had the RFRA remained the same.
Once the RFRA had been corrected by legislators and signed by Mike Pence, the state of Indiana could breathe a sigh of relief that not too much more economic damage would result from the vastly negative responses to the law. There were no celebrations this time around, as opposed to the mass outcry that ensued when the bill was first signed into law, because our legislators shouldn’t have had to make corrections in the first place. Our legislators are there to represent and listen to the people, and my state’s government failed to do so.
As a Hoosier, I want to make it clear that the few men and women in power that hold a supermajority in the State House while supposedly representing the people do not reflect the views of a vast majority of citizens in Indiana. Indiana welcomes all people regardless of race, gender, creed, sexual orientation, etc. I’m proud of my state for the strong response against the original RFRA, and I’m ever more proud of my fellow Indiana residents for demonstrating that “Hoosier hospitality” is not rooted in discrimination and hate, but instead in the good-hearted, hard working men and women with welcoming arms and open minds who make Indiana great.