A major topic in the news the past few weeks is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and how Indiana’s recent state RFRA is effecting the state’s reputation and economy. This act brings to light different types of discrimination across the United States and how some attempts to stop discrimination can lead to discrimination in other areas.
History of RFRA
The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in 1993, intended to prevent other federal laws from burdening a person’s Frist Amendment right – free exercise of religion. This was a very popular bill; passed by a unanimous U.S. House vote, and a near unanimous U.S. Senate vote. Although RFRA was intended to apply to all branches of government, the Supreme Court ruled that it only applies to the federal government. After the 1997 case of City of Boerne v. Flores, many states chose to enact individual RFRAs.
States and their RFRAs
After the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 2014 that for-profit corporations are entitled to claim religious belief (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.), some states have attempted to expand their RFRAs to include for-profit corporations.
Below is a map showing US states that have RFRAs.
Arizona passed SB 1062 to give any individual or legal entity an exemption from any state law if it burdened their exercise of religion, however it was later vetoed. Check out an old blog that delves into opinions and issues that Arizona faced. This bill was reported in the media as a method to target LGBTQ people in that it could allow refusal of service based on religious grounds. After the recent happenings in Indiana, a RFRA bill in Georgia has stalled in fear of national backlash.
Indiana’s RFRA Bill
Although Indiana proposed their RFRA bill, SB 101, back in January, it gained a national spotlight last month. This bill has been publicized to enable discrimination of the LGBTQ community through businesses. Garret Epps states in an article that this statue has two features that the federal and most RFRAs do not that could make it a tool for discrimination. First, any for-profit business is allowed to assert a right to “the free exercise of religion.” Second, instead of having a defense against actions brought from the government, it makes a business’s “free exercise” right a defense against a private lawsuit by another person. In his opinion, “this new statue hints most strongly that it is there to be sued as a means of excluding gays and same-sex couples from accessing employment, housing, and public accommodations on the same terms as other people.”
After the bill took the nation by storm, the Indiana legislature rejected an amendment to protect anti-discrimination laws from the reach of the RFRA. In a closed ceremony, Governor Mike Pence signed the legislation while avid protesting occurred outside.
Pence stated, “This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it. For more than 20 years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation’s anti-discrimination laws, and it will not in Indiana.”
Affects of Indiana’s RFRA
Although language has been changed to attempt to combat protests, this bill has significantly affected Indiana’s reputation. San Francisco mayor banned any publicly funded travel to Indiana after the bill was signed. Keith Olbermann, ESPN host and commentator, wanted the Final Four game to be pulled from Indianapolis. Wilco cancelled their upcoming show in Indianapolis releasing this tweet.
Comedian Nick Offerman and wife Megan Mullally have also canceled their Summer of 69: No Apostrophe tour stop in Indiana. Offerman stated that all of the profits from his uncanceled show at Indiana University will go to the Human Rights Campaign, a lobbyist for LGBT rights.
Indiana University also released this statement, “While Indiana University hopes that the controversy of the past few days will move the state government to reconsider this unnecessary legislation, the damage already done to Indiana’s reputation is such that all public officials and public institutions in our state need to reaffirm our absolute commitment to the Hoosier values of fair treatment and non-discrimination.”
Many tourism agencies in Indiana are developing campaigns stressing the fact that everyone is welcome to the state. The vice president of Visit Indy, Chris Gahl, said that he and the company have been in “full crisis mode” (aka receiving more than 800 emails from people canceling their trips to Indiana due to the backlash) since the bill was signed.
Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Indiana was the first business to publically cite religious beliefs as justification to refuse service to the LGBTQ community. Their original quote was “If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no. We are a Christian Establishment” This comment sparked an uproar on social media targeting the company on domain names (check out “their” website: memoriespizza.com) and Yelp. The co-owner, Crystal O’Connor, released a statement after they closed, “I don’t know if we will reopen, or if we can, if it’s safe to reopen.” Supporters of the pizzeria then set up a GoFundMe to support the employees and owners until they can evaluate their business situation. Famous actors Zach Braff and Donald Faison posted this tweet following this event showing solidarity with the LGBTQ community.
After the controversy, it came to light that the pizzeria has never catered any wedding, gay or straight.
Arkansas proposed HB 1228 around the same time as Indiana, but has not received quite as much backlash from the media and country possibly because Indiana proposed the bill first. Indiana has made changes to their bill to protect against discrimination, but Arkansas has yet to do so.
A recent article on BDN Maine also states that Maine’s RFRA bill, “An Act to Enact the Preservation of Religious Freedom Act”, is almost identical to the one proposed in Indiana. This proposed bill allows anyone who believes their freedom of religious exercise is being burdened by the government to file a lawsuit, or to claim religious freedom as a defense for breaking a law.
Do you think that RFRAs are a slippery slope to LGBTQ discrimination? Do you think that this is a media exaggeration of a bill never intended for such discrimination? Should businesses have the right to refuse service to people who contradict their beliefs?