Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed a bill last Thursday that was met with radically conflicting opinions. The Religious Freedom Reformation Act (RFRA) was authored by Senators Scott Schneider, Dennis Kruse and Brent Steele, and co-authored by nine other senators.
The official document of the bill, obtained from the Indiana General Assembly website, reads, “that a state or local government action may not substantially burden a person’s right to the exercise of religion.”
This means that government cannot impose certain regulations on private businesses unless such regulations can be proven to be “essential to further a compelling government interest” and is done in a way that is “the least restrictive means of furthering” that interest.
However, many people fear the bill will allow businesses to use it as a defense in private lawsuits stemming from LGBT discrimination. Valpo College Democrats President Michael Peterson, senior, said he couldn’t believe that the bill passed.
“Just the very fact that a law that essentially enforces and allows such a base of discrimination in 2015 really surprised me,” Peterson said.
RFRA laws are nothing new. In 1990, Congress introduced a federal RFRA that guaranteed the use of strict scrutiny when looking at cases dealing with personal religious and other First Amendment rights. After it was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, many individual states signed their own versions of the bill.
The problem for many people comes from the vague wording of Indiana’s version, as well as its ability to be used as a defense in private lawsuits. Larry Baas, chair of Valparaiso University’s political science department, said Pence will need to clarify what “substantial” government interest means.
Baas believes people in strong opposition to gay rights laws are using this bill as a way to halt societal changes taking place.
“I think there’s some genuine fear on the part of a lot of people,” Baas said, referring to people on both sides of the issue.
He added that Pence is faced with a difficult decision about whether or not to listen to calls for repeal of the RFRA, in light of his potentially entering the 2016 presidential campaign. If he chooses to repeal the law, he could lose favor with the Republicans. If he stands by his decision, he risks damaging his image with the Democrats.
“I’m not sure these (issues) are reconcilable at this point in time,” Baas said.
He went on to say that in light of same-sex marriage becoming legal in Indiana, those opposed to homosexuality and LGBT lifestyles are looking for a way to preserve their beliefs.
Currently, several states including New York, Washington and Connecticut are initiating a ban on state-funded travel to Indiana. In addition, National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) President Mark Emmert said he’s waiting on clarification of the bill before he decides whether or not to continue holding sporting events in Indiana.
“As it becomes better understood, we’re going to have to sit down and make judgements about whether or not it changes the environment for us doing our work and for us holding events,” Emmert said in an interview with ESPN journalist Andy Katz.
Alexandrea Griffin, president of Valpo’s College Republicans, holds a different view. She said the bill is necessary to ensure people’s religious beliefs and practices are honored. Griffin added that the wording of the document is almost identical to the federal RFRA that former President Bill Clinton signed in 1993.
She also said the bill needs to be vague to allow courts to be flexible with their interpretations. However, Griffin supports Pence’s recent decision to clarify the act because she said people have misinterpreted it so much that they no longer understand the true meaning.
As for the claim that the RFRA will allow for discrimination against members of the gay community, Griffin said “that’s a lot of baloney.”
She said that while she believes in equality for all people, she also thinks the bill has become a negative focal point to call attention to gay rights issues.
“Manipulating laws is not the best way to bring attention to a cause,” Griffin said.
She added that from an economic standpoint, it wouldn’t make sense for a local business to use the bill to refuse service to LGBT people. Griffin said that business would lose customers and gain a negative reputation, bringing their sales down. She added that it “isn’t smart.”
On Monday, Valpo President Mark Heckler released an official statement through an email sent to all students, faculty and staff. In the email, he reaffirmed the university’s commitment to equality and respect for people of all backgrounds and faiths.
He concluded his message by asking Pence and the local government officials “not only to amend this legislation, but also to use this opportunity to advocate for the values held by all those who strive to make Indiana a welcoming and inclusive state.”
Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas also released a statement Monday evening. He said the main problem was a misunderstanding of the bill, and that more time should have been spent explaining the intent behind it. Despite this, Costas urged citizens and businesses to continue to uphold the inclusive values of the city.
“I ask all Valparaiso citizens, businesses, offices, institutions and organizations to promote our city’s spirit of respect, welcoming nature, and appreciation for all persons who live, work and visit our community,” Costas wrote in his statement.
He went on to promote the placement of signs reading “We Serve Everyone” in prominent areas in shops and other businesses to reassure customers of the city’s stance on inclusion. Several local restaurants and stores have already begun displaying such signs.
Contact Stacy McKeigue at firstname.lastname@example.org.