Indiana’s Republican-led General Assembly—refusing to cede a losing battle against the tide of history—has sullied Indiana’s reputation again, sending one more message of divisiveness.
The latest missive is cloaked within Senate Bill 101, which ostensibly protects people of faith against threats to “religious freedom.” In reality, the bill is a cynical and defensive attempt by religious conservatives to counterbalance—via legalized discrimination—progress they find disturbing, notably the fact gay marriage now is legal in Indiana.
SB 101 is unnecessary since the free exercise of religion is solidly enshrined in our laws and is not under any real threat. The law also would be bad for business, with the potential to cost the state jobs and convention dollars. Indiana’s reputation as hostile to diversity already hampers recruitment of employees and companies. The state’s chief executive, Gov. Mike Pence, should have shown leadership and vetoed the bill. Unfortunately, he signed it in a private ceremony just as IBJ went to press.
It’s a shame Pence did not lend an ear to Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, who bucked his party to take a strong stance against SB101, which could hurt Indy more than the rest of the state. “We are a diverse city, and I want everyone who visits and lives in Indy to feel comfortable here,” Ballard said. Amen.
Or Pence could have had an open-minded discussion with the five Republican legislators who bravely voted against the bill, or to the heads of the dozens of companies—including Cummins Inc., Eli Lilly and Co. and Saleforce.com Inc.—that say SB 101 will hurt their ability to recruit top talent.
He could have consulted with the leaders of GenCon, which said it will consider moving its massive gaming convention. Or the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which pledged to move its general assembly scheduled for 2017.
The bill language itself seems innocuous enough, prohibiting any state law that “substantially burdens” the ability of a person, business or association to follow religious beliefs. Defenders note the law is modeled on a federal religious freedom law passed in 1993 and that 19 other states have similar laws.
But the sales pitch among religious conservative supporters reveals the true intention: providing legal cover for discrimination against gay people. The supporters’ case ultimately relies on unsubstantiated fears that religious business owners could be forced to provide services for events like gay weddings.
The push for SB 101 is another in a series of last gasps of resistance to cultural change that will remain uncomfortable for some people. Opponents of desegregation and interracial marriage fought to the bitter end—leaving behind a record that’s embarrassing to their children and grandchildren.
Adoption of the law is a blow to the legions of Hoosiers who in big and small ways in recent decades have made Indiana a more welcoming place—one that sees diversity as a strength, not a threat. We hope the setback serves to steel the determination of the many who are leading that march of progress.•
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