On Thursday morning Governor Mike Pence signed into Legislation Senate Bill 101—Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Act.” This bill has been the source of much controversy, and its opponents have expressed concerns from all different directions.
Just this week, thousands of letters literally rolled into the Statehouse demanding that Governor Pence veto SB 101. Shortly thereafter, a petition was created demanding Pence’s removal. Politicians haven’t been silent either. Democrats have called it, “disappointing, out of touch and discriminatory.” Even Indianapolis Mayor, Greg Ballard said, “I don’t believe this legislation represents our state or our capital city.” Apprehensions regarding this bill go beyond the general public and political arena. Major conventions, such as Gen Con and the Disciples of Christ, have threatened to move their meetings to other states. Losing such outside attractions would cost Indiana millions.
Opponents believe that SB 101 will allow businesses to deny basic services to the LGBT community based on religious beliefs—promoting hate and causing political, social, and economic backlash.
If SB 101 has caused so much controversy, then why did it get passed into legislation at all? That’s my intent in writing this article. I hope to bring some clarity to this issue by explaining SB 101’s purpose and demonstrating the unfounded misconceptions being projected by opponents.
(1) The Purpose of SB 101
In the early 1990’s President Clinton signed into federal law the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” This law protected citizen’s religious convictions under the First Amendment. In 1997, however, the Supreme Court determined they could not apply this federal law to individual states. This left states, like Indiana, unprotected in regard to religious freedoms. This is why there are now 19 states that have adopted their own RFRAs. SB 101, like other RFRAs, is meant to uphold and protect citizen’s religious freedoms by not allowing government entities to impose burdens upon individuals or businesses.
So, why do need this now? As Governor Pence mentioned, “Many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action” and rightly so. Despite our First Amendment rights, private businesses, right here in Indiana, have had to file lawsuits because they were required to offer insurance that violates their religious convictions. Even more alarming, in Ontario, a Muslim barber was sued because he refused to cut a woman’s hair due to the fact that his religion prohibits him from touching women besides his wife. It is not farfetched to believe this could happen here in our state too. There is no shortage of evidence, from all around the country, to prove that religious liberties are under fire.
Despite what most opponents believe, this isn’t just about the LGBT community. Washington attorney Howard Slugh pointed out this bill will protect a wide range of people—Jewish and Muslim prisoners who desire to eat meals in accordance with their beliefs, Native Americans possessing bird feathers for prayer, families that don’t believe in autopsies, members of a Brazilian church who possess plants necessary to make sacramental tea. These are just a few examples.
SB 101 protects Hoosiers of all beliefs to reasonably practice their religion without the government intervening. That’s good for Indiana.
(2) The misconceptions about SB 101
The most unfortunate aspects surrounding this bill are the misconceptions regarding its purpose. It is wrongly being portrayed as “Anti-Gay” and “discriminatory legislation.” But this couldn’t be any further from the truth. As Governor Pence said, “This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it.”
Opponents fear this bill will allow businesses to refuse common services to the LGBT community. But, as one political expert made clear, “No state or federal court has ever held that RFRA generally entitles religious business owners to refuse service to gay people. In the 20 years that these laws have existed, there is simply no record of successful cases that would justify the critics’ concerns.” In other words, the concerns that opponents of this law are expressing have no credible basis. The history of this law in other states shows that it hasn’t been used to discriminate. Particularly, it has not been used to discriminate against the LGBT community. This is because the original intent of this bill is designed to protect, not discriminate.
A careful reading of SB 101 proves this to be true. It states that citizens have the right to exercise their religious freedoms and convictions without the government “substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion.” Simply put, the government cannot impose “burdens,” such as penalties or fines, upon a business or individual just for holding to their religious beliefs.
But, there are exceptions that protect citizens from being discriminated against too. The law goes on to say that even though the government cannot substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion, it can, however, intervene if “the governmental entity can demonstrate that the burden: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling governmental interest.” In other words, if an incident of discrimination does occur, say against a member of the LGBT community, and it can be proven that the person was wrongly discriminated against, such as being denied work done to their car or food served in a restaurant, the government has the right, within the bounds of this law, to determine that such actions are wrong and are in fact discrimination.
It is a misconception to label this bill “Anti-Gay” or for the empowerment of “discrimination.” To do so misrepresents our law-makers and their supporters.
No one should be forced to violate their religious convictions. This law protects that. Also, no one should be able to discriminate against another person unjustifiably. The law has made exceptions for that. SB 101 is meant to protect Hoosiers. It is not designed for discrimination. Such fears are unfounded and in time will be proven unsubstantiated.