Bucking intense criticism from citizens, celebrities, tech leaders, and convention customers, Indiana’s Republican Gov. Mike Pence quietly signed a controversial religious freedom bill into law on Thursday. Opponents warn the measure will sanction discrimination against LGBT people, and cost the Hoosier State millions in tourism revenue.
“Today I signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, because I support the freedom of religion for every Hoosier of every faith,” the governor said in a statement released shortly after he signed Senate Bill 101, otherwise known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA.) “The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action.”
The new law will prohibit a governmental entity from substantially burdening a person’s religious beliefs, unless that entity can prove it’s relying on the least restrictive means possible to further a compelling governmental interest. It’s modeled off of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which gained notoriety in the Supreme Court’s controversial Hobby Lobby ruling last year. That decision found that closely-held corporations wouldn’t have to comply with the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate if the owners had a sincerely-held religious objection to birth control.
Supporters say RFRA is designed to protect people’s religious beliefs from unnecessary government intrusion. But opponents argue the measure serves as a license to discriminate, particularly against LGBT people, on religious grounds.
In the past week, a wide array of critics put pressure on Pence to veto the measure, including actor and director George Takei, the CEO of Salesforce, and the organizers of Gen Con – billed on its website as “the original, longest-running, best-attended, gaming convention in the world.” Adrian Swartout, CEO and owner of Gen Con LLC, said in a letter addressed to Pence that if Indiana’s RFRA became law, he would consider moving the convention to a different state in future years – a move that’s expected to cost Indiana more than $50 million annually.
But Pence pushed back against the accusation that the religious freedom measure would open the door to discrimination.
“This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it,” he said. “In fact, it does not even apply to disputes between private parties unless government action is involved. For more than twenty years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation’s anti-discrimination laws, and it will not in Indiana.”
Pence isn’t the first religious freedom supporter to argue that RFRA doesn’t apply to disputes between private parties – like, for example, a religious landlord who wants to evict his gay tenant. Michigan’s former Republican House speaker told msnbc the same thing when he was trying to rush a religious freedom measure through the legislature during last year’s lame duck session. But LGBT advocates point out that anti-discrimination laws rely on government agencies to take action in disputes between private parties, and it’s that action that would be impeded by RFRA.
“One of the ways that anti-discrimination laws work is that you have government agencies going after the people accused of discrimination. In that case, it would be a ‘government action,’” Brooke Tucker, staff attorney at the ACLU of Michigan, told msnbc last December. “For the landlord who violates the Fair Housing Act, a lot of times it’s the government who goes after him. The government takes a lot of steps to protect people from discrimination by others, and that’s something that could be severely impacted by this bill.”
The Michigan RFRA ended up dying. But once the 2015 session began, Republican lawmakers began introducing a wave of religious freedom measures across the country. According to the ACLU, 22 state RFRAs were introduced in 13 states this year. But Indiana’s is the first to become law.
Gov. Pence signed the measure during a private ceremony just before 10 a.m. Thursday morning. Members of the media were not allowed to even be in the waiting area of the governor’s office, The Indianapolis Star reported.
Read Pence’s full statement below:
“Today I signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, because I support the freedom of religion for every Hoosier of every faith.
“The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action.
“One need look no further than the recent litigation concerning the Affordable Care Act. A private business and our own University of Notre Dame had to file lawsuits challenging provisions that required them to offer insurance coverage in violation of their religious views.
“Fortunately, in the 1990s Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—limiting government action that would infringe upon religion to only those that did not substantially burden free exercise of religion absent a compelling state interest and in the least restrictive means.
“Last year the Supreme Court of the United States upheld religious liberty in the Hobby Lobby case based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but that act does not apply to individual states or local government action. At present, nineteen states—including our neighbors in Illinois and Kentucky—have adopted Religious Freedom Restoration statutes. And in eleven additional states, the courts have interpreted their constitutions to provide a heightened standard for reviewing government action.
“In order to ensure that religious liberty is fully protected under Indiana law, this year our General Assembly joined those 30 states and the federal government to enshrine these principles in Indiana law, and I fully support that action.
“This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it. In fact, it does not even apply to disputes between private parties unless government action is involved. For more than twenty years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation’s anti-discrimination laws, and it will not in Indiana.
“Indiana is rightly celebrated for the hospitality, generosity, tolerance, and values of our people, and that will never change. Faith and religion are important values to millions of Hoosiers and with the passage of this legislation, we ensure that Indiana will continue to be a place where we respect freedom of religion and make certain that government action will always be subject to the highest level of scrutiny that respects the religious beliefs of every Hoosier of every faith.”