How Indiana will “clarify” its religious freedom bill

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State Seal of Indiana

State Seal of Indiana

State Seal of Indiana

Over the weekend, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence allowed as how he and his advisors were surprised by the adverse reaction to the state’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). If so, their Hoosier domes are too thick to have been penetrated by last year’s nationwide protest against Arizona’s similar bill, which Gov. Jan Brewer consequently vetoed.

And because Pence failed to follow Brewer’s lead, he’s now in a world of hurt. As in, a lot of businesses and other “persons” are threatening to leave, boycott, and otherwise remove the hem of their garment from Indiana. What to do?

Even as he stands by the Act and blames the media for misrepresenting what it does, Pence says he will support legislation to “clarify,” — or perhaps “amplify” — it. The obvious way to do that would be to import some anti-discrimination language, the way a bunch of other state RFRAs do. But the governor ruled that out with the words, “That’s not on my agenda.”

The problem is that the brainiacs behind the Indiana law thought that they could avoid the charge of supporting discrimination against gays and lesbians by making clear that they wanted Hoosiers to be able to refuse to provide services to other folks as well. Here, for example, is how conservative activist Monica Boyer characterized the bill in January in a post featured on the Indiana Tea Party website.

What it isn’t

The media has wrongly portrayed this bill to be only about gay marriage.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  This Freedom of Conscience bill was designed to protect those who want the freedom of conscience when it comes to healthcare decisions, as well as organizations such as religious charities, businesses who have convictions, colleges with faith statements for students and employees, and so much more. The Indiana RFRA is not only for those be religious.  As my friend Jesse Bohannon said, “Even an Atheist has a right to refuse to do something that is morally repugnant!”

What’s the bottom line?

Hoosiers should not be required to provide a service, produce a product, rent out property, or be forced to do business with someone if the service goes against their conscience. Religious or not. Contrary to the hype the media is spewing, this is not a theocratic bill.  It is a FREEDOM bill. Freedom for everyone, not just some.   

In other words, the Indiana RFRA was sold as a kind of conscientious objector statute. If a Hoosier finds Muslims or Jews or mixed-race couples or short people or University of Kentucky basketball fans morally repugnant, she would be able to refuse to provide them with services.

Pence himself seemed to support this concept yesterday when George Stephanopoulos asked him if the law would permit an Indiana florist to refuse to serve a gay couple at their wedding. “People are trying to make it about one particular issue, and now you’re doing that as well,” he said. But then he continued:

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been on the books for more than 20 years. It does not apply, George, to disputes between individuals unless government action is involved, and in point of fact, in more than two decades, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never been used to undermine anti-discrimination laws in this country.

Whoa! Was Pence really saying that RFRA simply does not apply to that dispute between a florist and a same-sex couple; i.e. that if the couple sued the florist for refusing to provide services, the florist could not invoke RFRA? Today, Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma seemed to confirm that this “clarification” is in the works by telling a reporter, “The removal of the spectre of RFRA being a defense to a claim that services were denied may be one approach.”

If this is the legislative fix that emerges, it will astonish the country. And seriously bum out a whole lot of Indiana Tea Partiers.

Update: Bingo! “After much reflection and in consultation with leadership in the General Assembly, I’ve come to the conclusion that it would be helpful to move legislation this week that makes it clear that this law does not give businesses a right to deny services to anyone,” Pence said.

Further Update: That’s what legislators are proposing to the governor, at least with respect to sexual orientation.