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It’s Holy Week, the most important season in the Christian calendar. During this week millions of Christians worldwide will commemorate the cruxifiction and resurrection of Jesus Christ between Good Friday and Easter Sunday morning. Yet the story of the week is not so much the triumph of Jesus dying and rising from the dead for our sins….but rather an obscure “Religious Freedom” bill that just passed in Indiana, targeted squarely at discriminating against those in the LGBTQ community.
The country, quite frankly is up in arms against this new law and it’s putting much heat on the governor of Indiana and the legislature that passed the law. Companies are moving their employees out of the state, and major conventions are weighing their options about holding future meetings in Indiana. Even the giant retailer, Walmart, flexed its muscles and put a squeeze on the governor of Arkansas not to sign a similar bill.
Times are changing. The question is why do some feel the need to shut out minority groups…this time in the name of religion??
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act
The law is known as Senate Bill 101. Pence signed it into law last week (Week of March 23, 2015). It takes effect July 1.
The text says that the state cannot "substantially burden a person's exercise of religion" unless it is furthering a "compelling government interest" and acting in the least restrictive way possible.
Nineteen states have so-called religious freedom laws. They are modeled after a federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
It passed the House without objection and cleared the Senate by a vote of 97-3. Clinton said at the time that the law subjects the federal government to "a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone's free exercise of religion.”
Some legal experts have said that Indiana's law differs from the federal law, and most other similar state laws, in ways that could allow businesses a wider berth to discriminate.
Gay marriage has been legal in Indiana since last October, when the Supreme Court declined to take up a challenge to a federal appeals court ruling. Indiana does not have a state law specifically protecting gay people from discrimination.
As The Washington Post pointed out over the weekend, the other 19 states that passed so-called religious freedom laws did so before gay marriage became legal in most of the country.
Last February, then-Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona vetoed a similar law. "I sincerely believe that Senate Bill 1062 has the potential to create more problems than it purports to solve," she said at the time.
The backlash against the proposed law in Arizona was severe, and mirrors what is happening in Indiana. The NFL was even said to be considering moving the Super Bowl out of the state.
Social conservatives say that the law would stop the government from compelling people to do things they object to on religious grounds, like catering or providing flowers for a gay wedding.
Daniel O. Conkle, an Indiana University law professor who supports both the law and gay marriage, offered a defense in an essay for The Indianapolis Star:
Applying this test, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that a Muslim prisoner was free to practice his faith by wearing a half-inch beard that posed no risk to prison security. Likewise, in a 2012 decision, a court ruled that the Pennsylvania RFRA protected the outreach ministry of a group of Philadelphia churches, ruling that the city could not bar them from feeding homeless individuals in the city parks.
Indiana Right to Life and the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List have also come out in support of the law.
Indiana General Assembly Senate Bill 101
Religious freedom restoration. Prohibits a governmental entity from substantially burdening a person's exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the governmental entity can demonstrate that the burden: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling governmental interest. Provides a procedure for remedying a violation. Specifies that the religious freedom law applies to the implementation or application of a law regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity or official is a party to a proceeding implementing or applying the law. Prohibits an applicant, employee, or former employee from pursuing certain causes of action against a private employer.
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Carole Copeland Thomas is a 27 year speaker, trainer and consultant specializing in global diversity, empowerment, multiculturalism and leadership issues.