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Indiana backlash: Widespread condemnation of Indiana bill

by Matt Simonette

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Many activists, politicians and business leaders continued to issue condemnations of a so-called "religious freedom" bill, passed in the Indiana General Assembly and hastily signed in a private ceremony by Gov. Mike Pence on March 26.

[This week's cover story was first posted on this site March 30, 2015.]

Critics say that the legislation, SB 101, or, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, ultimately gives small businesses, closely-held corporations or individuals free license to discriminate against anyone who comes up against a person's stated religious principles. The law also prevents certain lawsuits from being filed against employers by their employees.

Pence posted a picture of himself at the signing on Twitter, flanked by both the bill's advocates and religious personnel. He said that the bill ensures "that religious liberty is fully protected under Indiana law" and that the state was supporting "freedom of religion for every Hoosier of every faith."

But Jane Henegar, executive director of ACLU of Indiana, in a statement, called the bill a sop to religious elements within Indiana still reeling over gay marriage becoming legal in the state.

"The timing of this legislation is important to understanding its intent: The bill was introduced as a backlash reaction to achieving marriage equality for same-sex couples in Indiana," noted Henegar. "We are deeply disappointed that the governor and state lawmakers have been tone-deaf to the cries of legions of Hoosiers—including businesses, convention leaders, faith communities, and more than 10,000 people who signed petitions against the bill—who say they don't want this harmful legislation to impair the reputation of our state and harm our ability to attract the best and brightest to Indiana."

On March 27, a similar bill cleared the Arkansas state Senate and was headed to the House where some amendments need to be cleared. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he will sign it. The new bill comes just a month after another anti-gay bill, this one prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination protections, became law in that state.

Meanwhile, the mayors of both Seattle and San Francisco issued statements saying that they would prohibit inessential travel to Indiana on their taxpayers' dime.

"We stand united as San Franciscans to condemn Indiana's new discriminatory law, and will work together to protect the civil rights of all Americans including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals," said San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee in a statement. "San Francisco taxpayers will not subsidize legally-sanctioned discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people by the State of Indiana."

Windy City Times asked both Chicago mayoral candidates whether they would consider issuing such a directive.

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia issued a strong condemnation of SB 101, but stopped short of calling for a boycott: "I believe in the freedom of worship. However, religion should never be used as a justification for discrimination of any group of people. That's why I've spent my life fighting for the inclusion and respect of all people, and why I've fought on the front lines for equality and fairness for all. We have had these fights integrating our schools and public spaces. We have had these fights for equal pay and protections for women in the work place. And we will keep having these fights to make sure that every member of our community is treated with respect, dignity, and the absolute equal protection of the law. The Indiana law is a sad and painful reminder that we must continue this struggle toward justice."

Incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel's campaign had not responded to the inquiry by press time. But Crain's reported March 30 that Emanuel had contacted about a dozen Indiana firms and asked them to consider the possibility of moving their businesses to Chicago.

"(Chicago's) great strength is the quality of our workforce and the fact that Chicago is a welcoming place," said Emanuel's letter, dated March 27. "Today, you cannot succeed in the global economy if you discriminate against your residents by treating them as second class citizens.

"As Gov. Pence changes state law to take Indiana backwards, I urge you to look next door."

Among the first businesses to question SB 101 was Seattle, Washington-based Gen Con, which organizes a large-scale gaming convention in Indianapolis each year. Its owner, Adrian Swartout, said in a letter to Pence, "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."

Swartout pointed out that people of all sexual orientations and gender identifications take part in Gen Con, and that the event results in about $50 million being spent in Indianapolis annually. Nevertheless, the convention is locked into place through 2020, so Gen Con will not be able to carry through with a change of venue for a number of years.

The National College Athletic Association ( NCAA ), which is preparing its Final Four tournament on April 4 and 6, released a statement March 26 voicing its apprehension about SB 101 as well.

"The NCAA national office and our members are deeply committed to providing an inclusive environment for all our events," said NCAA President Mark Emmert. "We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees. We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week's Men's Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill. Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce."

Indiana Mayor Gregory Ballard, a Republican, also opposed SB 101. The Christian Church ( Disciples of Christ ) threatened to relocate its 2017 conference from Indiana as well.

Indiana-based employers Cummins, Salesforce and Eskenazi Health also opposed the measure, according .

But the first action with measurable economic impact came March 28, when Indianapolis-based Angie's List announced that it was scrapping a $40 million expansion on the city's east side that touted 1,000 new jobs.

"We are putting the 'Ford Building Project' on hold until we fully understand the implications of the freedom restoration act on our employees, both current and future," said Angie's List CEO Bill Oesterle is a statement, which added that the company would begin exploring options for alternative locations soon.

Pence suggested he would push through legislation that would "clarify the intent" of SB 101 the week of March 30, but an appearance on ABC's This Week March 29 suggested that whatever that entailed would do little to assuage the concerns of activists. He emphasized that the law would not change and maintained that it was no different than laws passed in Illinois and several other states.

Jennifer Pizer, national director of Lambda Legal's Law and Policy Project, wrote in a statement that there is little comparison between Indiana and Illinois laws, since Illinois has robust anti-discrimination protections.

"This matters because those seeking to discriminate in Indiana may claim that the lack of a statewide law barring sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination means that there is no compelling state interest in enforcing local ordinances providing such protections," Pizer said.

Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov expanded on the distinction: "Indiana's law will take effect in a legal environment that provides no protections from discrimination against LGBT Hoosiers or visitors. Neither are there LGBT protections under Arkansas law ... In Illinois, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and LGBT-inclusive provisions of the Human Rights Act have co-existed since 2005 and function to protect a person's religious freedom while ensuring equal treatment of LGBT Illinoisans."

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