Earlier this week, Indiana lawmakers passed a controversial bill that would potentially make it much easier for businesses to discriminate against groups such as gays and lesbians on the basis of “religious freedom”. Strictly speaking, Senate Bill 101 aims to prohibit “a governmental entity from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability…”
It’s worth noting just how loosely the bill defines “exercise of religion”. From Sec. 5:
As used in this chapter, “exercise of religion” includes any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.
Good lord. Furthermore, the only areas the government can “burden” someone is if it can demonstrate that the burden “(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
Well, there isn’t really a governmental interest that you can prove if Joe and Jack Schmoe go into a bakery to buy a wedding cake and get shooed away. But it sure doesn’t pass the smell test, does it? In fact, of the five definitions in the bill, never once is it actually defined what qualifies as a “governmental interest”, so even if there were a law down the line that explicitly forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, it’s not clear to me that this wouldn’t supersede it.
Unsurprisingly, conservatives and liberals see this issue very differently. Republican Rep. Tom Washburne said, “it’s important that we allow our citizens to hold religious beliefs, maybe even those we might be appalled by, and to be able to express those,” while Democrat Minority Leader Scott Pelath felt “it basically says to a group of people you’re second rate, you don’t matter, and if you walk into my store, I don’t have to serve you.”
In an ironic twist, it seems that the very city in which this bill was approved—Indianapolis—isn’t even on board with the idea, and Downtown Indianapolis has even started a #WeWelcomeAll Video Challenge with a $5000 prize. Stores are even putting up stickers showing their support for the LGBT community.
This decision could also affect Indiana’s bottom line, as major businesses such as Salesforce and Eli Lilly and Co. have openly criticized the bill, believing it to promote discrimination and potentially creating an unwelcoming environment for potential employees. Gen-Con, a convention that draws over 50,000 people to the Indianapolis area has issued a letter to Gov. Mike Pence threatening to relocate. Perhaps the most intriguing example of opposition to the RFRA bill, however, comes from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which has stated it is reconsidering holding its 2017 convention in Indianapolis if the bill is signed into law.
The good news is that support for LGBT rights is growing. The bad news is that lawmakers seem to insist on taking steps in the wrong direction. Wouldn’t it be great fun if a bunch of non-Christian groups moved into Indiana and started “exercising” their own religions? Calling all Pastafarians, anyone?