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What you need to know: Indiana’s contested Religious Freedom Restoration Act

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Indiana governor Mike Pence announced Tuesday that he wants new legislation to “correct the perception” of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by the end of the week.

Pence called upon the general assembly to clarify the “smears” and “mischaracterizations” surrounding the controversial bill, which critics say legalizes discrimination against homosexuals.

“I don’t support discrimination against gays or lesbians or anyone else. I abhor discrimination,” Pence said at a press conference. “No one should be harassed or mistreated because of who they are, who they love, or what they believe. I believe it with all my heart.”

The embattled politician says the purpose of the act is to give people the opportunity to go into Indiana’s state and federal courts when they feel government action has infringed upon their right to religious liberty.

“I’d like to see on my desk before the end of this week legislation that is added to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana that makes it clear that this law does not give businesses the right to deny services to anyone,” he said.

The press conference was his latest attempt at damage control since the bill was signed into law last Thursday, igniting a firestorm across the United States.

Both sides of the debate claim the other is mischaracterizing the law. So what does RFRA really say, and what’s at stake for the people of Indiana, and beyond?

Nuts and bolts of the law

RFRA, or Senate Bill 101, is slated to go into effect on July 1.

It prohibits any government entity from “substantially burdening” a person’s right to exercise his or her religion unless it furthers a “compelling governmental interest.”

As with other bills, this leaves room for interpretation.

The potential scope of RFRA’s guaranteed religious liberties (i.e. the “freedom” for a Christian bakery to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple) will differ depending upon whom you ask.

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Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (Photo: Darron Cummings/AP)

Experts say that determining whether a religious freedom was infringed upon will likely be handled in court on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with RFRA.

Opponents say that RFRA could embolden homophobes to challenge or disregard local anti-discrimination laws that specifically protect gays in employment, education, housing and other matters, the Indianapolis Star reported.

Much of the state does not have such protections, but they are on the books in about a dozen cities.

The Indiana paper notes that state-level RFRA laws have not yet trumped anti-discrimination laws, although they have been invoked in attempts to do just that.

Unprecedented backlash

Some companies have canceled, halted or reconsidered their business endeavors in light of RFRA. This poses a major problem for Pence, who, as governor, is expected to attract businesses to create jobs in Indiana, rather than drive them away.

The Indianapolis-based NCAA, for instance, released a statement expressing concern over how the RFRA might affect student athletes and employees.

“Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill, and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, the likely Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Indiana University, the Indiana Pacers, as well as Fever, Yelp and many others, have also protested the decision.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray went as far as to ban the use of city funds for Seattle employees to travel to Indiana for work.

“Seattleites know that discrimination has no place in our City – that’s just equality ‘101’,” he said.

Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration act is gay discrimination, pure and simple. You can frost a dog turd, but it’s still a dog turd.

pic.twitter.com/21LwD5Ie72

We’re disappointed to see state bills that enshrine discrimination. These bills are unjust and bad for business. We support #EqualityForAll.

.@GovPenceIN, is it going to be legal for someone to discriminate against me & others when we come to the #FinalFour? http://t.co/uBlKbIf8YK

Pence said he was caught off guard by the overwhelming opposition because “religious freedoms” laws typically enjoy widespread bipartisan support.

The governor claims RFRA mirrors the federal law signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993 and laws in 30 other states, including one President Barack Obama supported in 1998 when he was an Illinois state senator.

But Garrett Epps, a contributing editor for The Atlantic, points out that the Indiana law differs from other state and federal RFRAs in two fundamental ways.

Indiana’s law explicitly permits for-profit businesses to assert the right to “the free exercise of religion,” and a religious person may assert that his or her rights have been violated “regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding.”

Critics say that these distinctions from previous laws make Pence’s characterization of the bill blatantly untrue.

Repairing Indiana’s reputation

Many open-minded and progressive Hoosiers fear that RFRA — regardless of its original intentions – has tarnished the state’s purported reputation as a place that embraces people of all backgrounds.

In a frontpage editorial, the Indianapolis Star, the state’s largest newspaper, argued Tuesday that Pence and state legislators need to enact a law that clearly prohibits discrimination, to salvage Indiana’s good name.

“Only bold action — action that sends an unmistakable message to the world that our state will not tolerate discrimination against any of its citizens — will be enough to reverse the damage,” the editorial reads in part.

The paper urges Pence and other politicians to stop arguing about whether RFRA actually legalizes discrimination and instead focus on fixing this issue so the state can move forward.

“Governor, Indiana is in a state of crisis. It is worse than you seem to understand. You must act with courage and wisdom. You must lead us forward now. You must ensure that all Hoosiers have strong protections against discrimination.”

Pence lashed out at the national media for its coverage of RFRA and categorically defended Hoosiers as “the kindest, most generous, most decent people in the world.”

“The things that have been said about our state have been at times deeply offensive to me,” Pence said. “And I will continue to use every effort to defend the good and decent people of Indiana.”

Many local businesses are putting “This business serves everyone” stickers in their windows to protest RFRA.


(Cover tile photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty)

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