No hate in this state

April 1, 2015

Tom Alter reports from Indiana, where people took the streets to protest so-called "religious freedom" legislation that is merely anti-LGBT bigotry in disguise.

"NO HATE in my state," chanted thousands people in Indianapolis on March 28 as they marched from Monument Circle to the Statehouse to protest the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

The act, which Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed into law on March 25, claims to protect the right of business owners to run their businesses according to their religious beliefs. But in reality, it gives the green light for bigoted owners to legally discriminate against gays, lesbians and anyone else they deem unacceptable.

After days of outrage--inside and outside Indiana--Pence was forced to backpedal. On March 31, he said that while he still supported RFRA, he was calling for legislation "making it clear the law does not allow businesses the right to deny services to anyone." But supporters of LGBT rights say they'll continue protesting until the law is repealed.

The outpouring of opposition to this bigoted legislation and the solidarity with LGBT rights was immediate. Organizers of the March 28 protest, which included the Indianapolis chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), Freedom Indiana and other area LBGT organizations, thought the quickly organized evet would turn out about 100 people. Instead, some 3,000 came out to demonstrate--an indication of the widespread sentiment against RFRA in Indiana. A smaller rally against RFRA was held in Fort Wayne on the same day.

Indiana protests the passage of legalized discrimination against LGBT people
Indiana protests the passage of legalized discrimination against LGBT people (Freedom Indiana)

Outrage against RFRA hasn't been limited to the Hoosier state. On March 23, the day that the Indiana House passed RFRA, Jason Collins, the first openly gay NBA player, tweeted Pence to ask: "Is it going to be legal for someone to discriminate against me & others when we come to the #FinalFour?" Collins was referring to the NCAA Final Four basketball games scheduled to take place in Indianapolis starting this weekend.

Collins' tweet sparked extensive media coverage of Indiana's RFRA across the U.S. After Pence signed RFRA into law, actor and gay rights activist George Takei called for a boycott of Indiana--"not only to send a clear message to Indiana, but also to help stop the further erosion of our core civil values in other parts of this country," Takei said.

The boycott call drew an immediate response from individuals, businesses and organizations.

Gen Con, the largest table gaming convention in North America, has been held every year in Indianapolis since 2003, drawing over 56,000 people and bringing in $50 million to the city. In a letter to Pence, Gen Con owner Adrian Swartout wrote, "Legislation that could allow for refusal of service or discrimination against our attendees will have a direct negative impact on the state's economy, and will factor into our decision-making on hosting the convention in the state of Indiana in future years."

The company Angie's List canceled a $40 million expansion of its headquarters in Indianapolis, at an estimated cost of 1,000 jobs. The state government of Connecticut and the city governments of San Francisco and Seattle say they won't allow taxpayer-funded trips to Indiana.

On March 30, AFSCME became the first union to pull a labor convention out of Indiana, canceling its AFSCME Women's Conference previously scheduled for October in Indianapolis. In a statement, AFSCME President Lee Saunders said, "This un-American law allowing businesses to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers sets Indiana and our nation back decades in the struggle for civil rights."

The band Wilco announced the cancelation of a May 7 show in Indianapolis as the condemnation of RFRA and support for the boycott continues to grow.

SUPPORTERS OF RFRA say the discrimination claims are exaggerated. They contend that the act is only about protecting "religious freedom," that LGBT people aren't mentioned anywhere in the law, and that Indiana's RFRA is similar to a federal law enacted in 1993 and those on the books in 19 other states.

But all this is simply untrue. State Sen. Dennis Kruse said he wrote Indiana's RFRA after being encouraged by the federal Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that for-profit corporations can't be forced to provide employees with insurance that covers contraceptives, if this offends their religious beliefs.

Indiana's passage of RFRA also came just as the state legislature was embroiled in a long and heated debate over same-sex marriage. When federal judges ruled that same-sex marriage could not be banned in Indiana, RFRA surfaced in what was generally acknowledged as a "consolation prize" for religious conservatives.

When the federal RFRA and similar state laws were enacted in the 1990s, conservatives were also campaigning against same-sex marriage. But since then, as public support of LGBT equality increased, the federal government and some of the states with "religious freedom" laws passed further legislation forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation within state and federal workplaces and public accommodations. Indiana has no such law.

When ABC News' George Stephanopoulos interviewed Pence on March 29 and asked if he would support adding sexual orientation as a protected class under Indiana's civil rights laws, the governor responded, "I will not push for that...That's not on my agenda." On ABC's This Week, Stephanopoulos asked Pence eight times to answer "yes" or "no" as to whether businesses could refuse service to LGBT people under Indiana's RFRA. Pence dodged the question each time.

Pence's assertions that RFRA doesn't allow anti-gay discrimination rings especially hollow when you look at who the government invited to the private signing of RFRA into law. In the photo released by Pence's office, three leaders of anti-LGBT organizations stand above the governor as he signs the bill.

In fact, Indiana's RFRA contains several clauses that make it significantly different from other versions. The Indiana RFRA specifically grants for-profit businesses the right to "the free exercise of religion." The federal RFRA and all of the state RFRAs, except for South Carolina's, contain no such language. Indiana's law also contains language that equates for-profit businesses rights with individuals and churches, similar to the Hobby Lobby ruling. Only Texas' "religious freedom" law has similar language.

National outcry against Indiana's RFRA resulted in a similar bill being stalled in Georgia. In Arkansas, hundreds protested in Little Rock on March 30, where a RFRA initiative passed the state legislature and is headed to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has said he will likely sign the bill.

In Indiana, protests are continuing against the RFRA. Another anti-RFRA demonstration was held in Indianapolis on March 30 featuring Olympic diver Greg Louganis, and the National Coalition of Hoosier Expatriates began a drive to bring 1 million people to Indianapolis during its Circle City IN Pride from June 5 to 13.

Across the state, "open to everyone" signs have been appearing on the doors of local businesses. Activists will continue to organize to put the pressure on Pence and state lawmakers to repeal this discriminatory law, which is set to go into effect July 1--and they have begun a push to have sexual orientation added to Indiana's civil rights laws.

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