OPINION: Legalized Discrimination?

by Chelsea Hall | staff writer

Controversy has boiled around the Senate Bill 101 dubbed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed on March 26 at a private ceremony by Indiana governor Mike Pence. Proponents say it allows business owners to deny service to individuals if they have religious objections, and this according to the people who support the bill is in accordance with the First Amendment. Opponents say this bill could be used by businesses with certain religious convictions to discriminate against same-sex couples. Does the bill literally allow and state this? No, that’s not what’s specifically written, but opponents say this is what the bill implies and what could happen. Regardless of where one stands, Senate Bill 101 has been a major source of contention amongst not only Hoosiers, but nationally as well.

The law was signed early Thursday morning and is only 5 pages long. Even though it’s a quick read, the thrust of the argument is as follows:

            Sec. 8. (a) Except as provided in subsection (b), a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability b) A governmental entity may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if the governmental entity demonstrates that application of the burden to the person: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest.

The bill also give multiple examples of what they consider to be a person including not only an individual, but also a corporation or an entity that “exercises practices that are compelled or limited by a system of religious belief held by: (i) an individual; or (ii) the individuals.” This message has stirred a lot of controversy, mainly because it’s ambiguous at best and opponents say that this leads many opportunities for businesses to discriminate. Proponents say that this is not the case. Mike Pence quotes that the main message of the bill is that “if a government is going to compel you to act in a way that violates your religious beliefs, there has to be a compelling interest.” Not only have individuals had opinions about the law, major events and celebrities have rallied against it.

Gen Con is by far North America’s largest table top gaming convention and is hosted in Indianapolis every August. Gen Con has threatened to move out of Indianapolis if Mike Pence signed the bill into law. People have stated that this could be damaging to Indianapolis’s economy as the event brings in millions to Indianapolis every year. George Takei has also taken to Facebook and denouncing the bill as well and has also threatened to never come to Indiana for events like Gen Con. Ironically, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) who also have a convention in Indianapolis said they would cancel as well. And in another twist of irony, Republican mayor of Indianapolis Greg Ballard disagreed with the bill stating it would put his city’s economy at risk and that “We are a diverse city, and I want everyone who visits and lives in Indianapolis to feel comfortable here.”

Because of the ambiguity and vagueness of the law, the implications could be enormous. How far can the “substantially burden” go? And what about the using the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest if the governmental entity may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion? How unrestrictive are they going to get?  With how vague this law is, and even though the law does not explicitly state that businesses can discriminate against a person based off of religious convictions, this is in essence what is implied. It seems like the bill was left vague intentionally as if to allow for many interpretations to allow anyone to claim their religious convictions as a reason to deny services to anyone who in their mind, objects with them. And it wouldn’t help the proponents of the bill who say that discrimination is not what could happen if lobbyists (Micah Clark of American Family Association of Indiana and Curt Smith of the Indiana Family Institute) who lobbied for last year’s gay marriage ban weren’t at the private ceremony that Mike Pence signed the bill into law. Even though the law doesn’t specify a religion in which the government can burden, it can be easily deduced, due to the nature of social conservatives and especially when a lobbyist at the private signing, Eric Miller of Advance America a conservative Indiana based organization, states that “It is vitally important to protest religious freedom in Indiana. It was therefore important to pass Senate Bill 101 in 2015 in order to help protect churches, Christian businesses and individuals from those who want to punish them because of the their Biblical beliefs!” It should be obvious as to which religion the General Assembly means when they talk about burdening a person’s exercise of religion.

People were really hoping that Mike Pence would have an ‘Arizona moment’, referencing Jan Brewer’s (the governor of Arizona) last minute veto of a similar bill that showed up in Arizona’s legislature. But instead of quoting the possible discrimination of gays, she quoted that possible damages to the economy could happen if the bill were to fall through. Many were hoping that Mike Pence would have a change in conscience and veto the bill and cancel at the last minute. But he didn’t. He joined the 18 other states that have similar laws. And in reality, the vagueness of this law is going to possibly follow with lots of law suits and much political and social contention between people of all religions and sexual orientations. Thanks Mike.

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