A window sticker on a downtown Indianapolis business, Wednesday, March 25, 2015, shows its objection to the Religious Freedom bill passed by the Indiana legislature. Organizers of a major gamers' convention and a large church gathering say they're considering moving events from Indianapolis
'Religious freedom' law only reinforces our state's backward image
Jerry Davich, Chicago Tribune
Embarrassed is the word that best sums up my feelings toward Senate Bill 101. Not angry. Not disappointed. Certainly not surprised.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is a poorly perfumed piece of legislation for what smells to me like legal discrimination and an obvious backlash to same-sex marital equality in our regressive state.
Supporters of the bill clamor otherwise but I say they're either lying, misled or confused. Our state's image is already a national punchline. This new law only punctuates our stereotype as a state of social backwardness.
In a private ceremony Thursday morning, Gov. Mike Pence signed the controversial bill into law, which takes effect July 1. Our proudly conservative governor promised to autograph the bill when it hit his desk, despite so much opposition in this state and across the country.
"This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it," Pence said in a statement. "In fact, it does not even apply to disputes between private parties unless government action is involved. For more than 20 years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation's anti-discrimination laws, and it will not in Indiana."
Only time will tell if the new law will undermine anti-discrimination laws, specifically against the gay community. In fact, the new law has already brought warnings that it will make Indiana less attractive to businesses and conventions. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce and Greg Ballard, the Republican mayor of Indianapolis, opposed the bill.
I honestly never thought the bill would get this far in the legislative pipeline, let alone become law, even though I'm well aware of our Republican-controlled General Assembly. I figured lawmakers would back off, considering all the heat this bill attracted and all the potential money lost for this state.
Watchdog groups knew better, beginning months ago.
"We've had grave concerns about this bill since it became clear lawmakers were going to put it on their agenda this session," said Jennifer Wagner, spokeswoman for Freedom Indiana, a statewide organization opposing the bill.
After the bill passed the Senate 40-10 earlier this week, Pence said in a statement, "The legislation is about respecting and reassuring Hoosiers that their religious freedoms are intact."
Really? Are Hoosiers' religious freedoms being seriously threatened? I don't think so.
"We have religious freedom," Wagner said. "We've had it for centuries and we value it so much that we enshrined it in our Constitution at the state and federal levels. We don't need Senate Bill 101 to protect our religious liberty."
Pence, and many other Hoosiers, believe we do.
Many readers contacted me in support of this bill, but no one was willing to go on the record. I wish more of these believers would publicly state their name, and express their honest feelings on this issue. No, it may not be the popular opinion these days, but neither was same-sex equality or gay rights until now.
Some have pointed out the potential for legalized discrimination against gay people. I agree this is what's behind the bill's true intent. Also take into account its timing after a groundswell of public approval in favor of gay equality issues, specifically same-sex marriage.
This law, supporters insist, simply provides every citizen a protection in court if the government oversteps its boundaries and doesn't infringe on their freedom to live according to their beliefs. Nothing more.
Regardless, our state's welcome mat has been soiled and our 19th century image is back in the national spotlight, yet again.
"We've seen movements like this one in our nation's history, and we all know that no matter what fancy name you want to put on a piece of legislation, discrimination is discrimination," said Wagner, from Freedom Indiana.
The bill's righteous-sounding moniker, "religious freedom restoration," is merely semantics for political pandering in a traditionally conservative state, I say.
Jane Henegar, executive director of ACLU Indiana, immediately issued a statement condemning our lawmakers, though I doubt it will improve our reputation.
"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."
Most of my readers agree, joining in a spirited (and refreshingly civil) debate on my social media sites. If anything, this bill has initiated a dialogue that needs to be hashed out in Northwest Indiana.
I will amplify this discussion on my Casual Fridays radio show, with Wagner and others calling in to voice their opinions. Tune in Friday at noon on WLPR, 89.1-FM, and call in with your opinion at (219) 769-9577.
The bottom line: Pence signed his name on a legal document that will eventually be found on the wrong side of history, I say. Agree? Disagree? Similarly embarrassed? Let me know.
Connect with Jerry at email@example.com