The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), also known as Indiana Senate Bill 101, has raised debates about two hot-button topics in America today: religion and LGBTQ rights.
The bill, which Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed into law on March 26, replicates the federal RFRA signed into law by Bill Clinton nearly 20 years ago, with a few differences. The federal law is meant to prevent the government from substantially burdening a person’s ability to practice his or her religion unless the government can show it has a compelling reason to do so, and it must choose the least restrictive way to intervene.
Unlike the federal law, however, the Indiana RFRA bill includes entities such as for-profit corporations. Opponents of the law argue that this difference allows anyone to recognize his corporation as religious, regardless of whether members of that business or corporation hold a certain religious belief. Additionally, the Indiana law includes private parties, while the federal law does not. If, for example, a homosexual man sues a photographer for refusing to photograph his wedding because of his sexual orientation, the photographer can use the RFRA as defense in Indiana. These additions, people who oppose the law argue, essentially legalize discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Personally, I feel as if this is a huge step backwards for Indiana as well as for the United States,” sophomore political science major Mary Grace Morgese said. “It shows that, despite all of the positive progression we as a country have made within combating discrimination and fighting for equality within the LGBTQ arena, there are still individuals who will undermine it.”
After initial backlash, Pence stated that the law was not meant to be discriminatory in any way.
“If I thought [the law] legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it,” he said in a statement last week.
Political science professor Bruce Stinebrickner is surprised by how badly Gov. Pence has handled the backlash.
“It’s surprising that the governor in particular didn’t realize the minefield he was walking into. I think that’s amazing,” he said. “I’m also surprised, I guess, by how Pence in particular, how they’re crumbling.”
Stinebrickner believes the massive objection to its passing might have something to do with the recent legalization of gay marriage in the state of Indiana.
“The gay rights movement continues to grow because of the perception that this was passed in reaction to the legalization of same sex marriage,” he said. “This is another mood to try to hold the line on this rampant gay movement.”
Spiritual Life Coordinator Adam Cohen said the amount of media attention the bill is getting can turn people away from Indiana and from DePauw.
“I mean this has survived 5, 6 news cycles now,” he said. “People who are looking to move here, live here, work here or attend school here have now seen Indiana as kind of, at the worst, a bigoted state, maybe at best a state that sure bungled something.”
Cohen is also the President of the Greencastle City Council and the advisor to Hillel.
“It is important for our campus to know that DePauw is fully committed to serving all of our students, faculty and staff, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity or sexual orientation,” Vice President of Student Life Christopher Wells sent in an email to students on March. 29. “This was the case before passage of RFRA and it will remain the case today,”
DePauw President Brian Casey usually tries to avoid political topics, as he said in a statement regarding the law, because he wants students to have discussions of their own and form their own opinions regarding those issues. With the recent inclusion discussions being had on campus, however, he felt the need to address the law to the DePauw community.
“I join with other Indiana corporations, leaders in industry, and institutions of higher education and urge the Governor and the legislature to take all steps necessary to address the harm this legislation has caused,” Casey said in his statement. “We must affirm that the State of Indiana is a place that welcomes and respects all citizens and visitors regardless of their race, religion, or sexual orientation.”
Casey said DePauw students have shown overwhelmingly positive support of his stance through social media, though he has received some backlash from other people he does not know.
“Some were really vitriolic, like ‘who are you to speak’ and ‘you have another agenda’ and ‘you don’t believe in religious freedom.’ It was really from people in California, Texas, New Mexico, upstate New York,” he said.
Mitch Meyers, owner of Meyers Market, is a religious man himself, but would not refuse a member of the LGBTQ community, even if he had the RFRA as a defense for it.
“As a business owner, to turn anybody away is not something we want to do,” he said. “Even with the Religious Freedom [Restoration] Act, there’s no religion that should discriminate against another person, so it’s not my place to judge somebody and how they live."
Senior Jamie Powell, president of College Republicans at DePauw, hopes to begin discussions about the law on campus to get students actively engaged in politics.
“As a group, College Republicans has not discussed our personal opinions on the RFRA, but we are currently putting together a panel of political science professors to help start a discussion on campus,” she said.
College Democrats President, senior Parker Schwartz, thinks the law backtracks on all of the progression made in the United States in recent years.
“As Democrats, we are worried by such extremist positions made consistently by our Republican colleagues,” Schwartz said. “Those that were originally proposed in RFRA specifically are juxtaposed so poorly next to a nation that is increasingly progressive and accepting in relation to our LGBTQ citizens.”
Due to the public outrage with regards to the law, Pence called for a “fix.” Since then, a change has been proposed that will disallow discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. About 20 states have a version of the RFRA, and many of them contain a similar clause. Arkansas’ state government is having similar discussions about amending its RFRA to include an anti-discriminatory clause.
At print, Pence, signed a clarification to the bill adding a statute using the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” Those words appear in an Indiana statute for the first time with the passing of the amendments to RFRA.
“Indiana is open for business. We welcome everyone. We discriminate against no one,” said Indiana House Speaker Brain Bosma.
Look for continuing coverage in Tuesday’s issue.
- Brock Turner contributed to this article