How Indiana's 'Religious Freedom' Law Turned Into a Nationwide Political Storm
State lawmakers vow to amend the law as elected officials, corporations, and others speak out.
It's not often that a state bill passed by a legislature and signed into law by a governor turns into a national political tempest. But that's exactly what's happening this week in the aftermath of Indiana's new "religious freedom" law, which has public figures ranging from the governor of Connecticut to the band Wilco publicly disavowing the legislation, saying it codifies discrimination against LGBT individuals.
And though top Indiana state legislators have since sought to mollify the madding crowd by saying they'll "clarify" that the law doesn't permit discrimination, and Gov. Mike Pence has scheduled a press conference Tuesday morning to "discuss and clarify" the law, it's unlikely the tempest will die down anytime soon, especially as Arkansas considers a similar law in its own legislature.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act—signed into law last Thursday by Pence, a Republican—was written, its supporters say, to protect individuals and businesses from acting against their own religious beliefs. Per the new legislation, the government cannot "substantially burden" a person's free exercise of religion. In this case, a "person" is considered an individual, religious organization, association, or business. If one of these "persons" feels their religious convictions have been burdened by the government, this law can be used in any legal action that might result.
Critics like Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy say the law codifies discrimination against LGBT individuals and others that religious people may not agree with. They say it's especially risky because Indiana doesn't have statewide protections from discrimination due to sexual orientation.
(RELATED: Indiana Law Tests Republicans' 2016 Strategy for Social Issues)
"I found it disturbing, disgraceful, and outright discriminatory," Malloy said at a press conference Monday. This type of discrimination "should remain in the history books and should not be reborn in this country state by state."
Pence says the critics are wrong—that the bill is about "restricting the government's ability to intrude on the religious liberty of our citizens," not legalizing discrimination—and he's supporting further legislation to "clarify the intent of the law." But just two days after signing it, Pence recognized that his state's reputation—and its coffers—has been affected by the opposition.
The Indianapolis Star, the state's biggest newspaper, has similar concerns: The Tuesday edition's cover—headlined with big block letters declaring, "Fix This Now"—features an editorial describing how "much is at stake" as lawmakers contemplate adjustments to the law, and the "consequences will only get worse if our state leaders delay in fixing the deep mess created."+ Front page of the Indianapolis Star, March 31, 2015. (Indianapolis Star)
Opposition to the law began building before Pence even signed the legislation, and when he did, critics were ready to pounce. Almost immediately after being signed, a trend began among elected officials: imposing bans on government-funded travel to Indiana in retaliation for the new law. San Francisco's mayor was the first, instituting a ban just hours after Pence signed the legislation. Seattle was next, on Saturday, with its mayor indicating he'd sign a formal executive order sometime this week. The state of Connecticut and the city of Portland, Oregon, followed on Monday. In a statement to National Journal, the U.S. Conference of Mayors said it is "concerned" and "closely monitoring" what's going on in the state ahead of their 2016 convention, currently slated to be held in Indianapolis.
On Tuesday afternoon, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo put his own ban in place, after LGBT lawmakers in the state legislature urged him to respond to the Indiana law. And Tuesday evening could bring another mayoral prohibition, from Washington's Muriel Bowser.
New: Mayor Bowser will announce during State of District speech tonight that no DC funds will be spent to travel to Indiana.— Matt Ackland (@mattacklandfox5) March 31, 2015
(RELATED: Rubio Defends Indiana's "Religious Freedom" Law)
Indiana's professional basketball and football teams, pro-LGBT-rights celebrities, and even NASCAR have expressed their opposition to the law on the national stage. Others have taken their outrage offline, like the more than 2,000 people who gathered in protest at the Indiana state Capitol on Saturday with rainbow flags in hand. Indiana's own state Chamber of Commerce said Monday that the business community "did not support [the law] and did not want to see [it] happen." It has asked companies not to move their businesses out of state, but Yelp and Salesforce have already announced that they're considering limiting their operations in Indiana as a result of the law. Angie's List, headquartered in Indianapolis, canceled a $40 million expansion of its main office, which would've brought 1,000 jobs to Indiana.
An official with Visit Indy, the city's tourism agency, said as many as eight organizations expressed concerns about holding their conventions there, and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard said Monday that the bill sends the "wrong signal." As of Monday, one organization had already pulled out of Indiana: The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees announced it's relocating its fall women's conference "as a direct result" of the legislation.
Other organizations are waiting to see what changes are made to the law before making decisions about doing business in the state, but the collective doubt about their plans nevertheless sends a message. One such organization, the NCAA, said Thursday that, due to the law, officials would have to evaluate scheduled events in Indianapolis, including the men's Final Four games in the beginning of April.
This waiting game will be in effect at least until Indiana legislators present new legislation—potentially later this week—to define the law's intent. In the meantime, it's presenting an early test for Republican presidential candidates and their social-issue strategies for 2016. Opponents will no doubt continue advocating for the law's full repeal. And as Arkansas gets closer to passing its own "religious freedom" law, the noise against this type of legislation could grow even louder. One thing that may not help quiet this down nationally? Arkansas lawmakers recently announced that they'll try to pass their law without any nondiscrimination clause, ignoring the backlash of the Indiana debacle.
This story has been updated with additional information.