Religious freedom bill likely to become law in Indiana

Timothy Wesco (Photo by Michael Conroy/AP)
Rep. Timothy Wesco, R-Osceola, addresses a rally of supporters of a religious freedom bill at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Monday, Feb. 9, 2015. Weson is...

A controversial religious freedom bill that critics warn will sanction discrimination against LGBT people looks poised to become law in the Hoosier State.

Indiana’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 101 Monday on a 63-31 vote, largely along party lines. The state Senate, also Republican-controlled, passed a slightly different version last month, and is expected to give final approval to the House-passed measure as early as Tuesday morning. Indiana’s Republican Gov. Mike Pence has already signaled his intention to sign the bill into law.

Modeled off of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which gained notoriety in the Supreme Court’s controversial Hobby Lobby ruling last year, Senate Bill 101 would prohibit a governmental entity from substantially burdening someone’s religious beliefs, unless that entity can prove it’s relying on the least restrictive means possible to further a compelling governmental interest.

Supporters say the bill is designed to protect people’s religious beliefs from unnecessary government intrusion. But opponents argue the measure would act as a license to discriminate, particularly against LGBT people, on religious grounds.

Citing RFRA, a religious business owner, for example, could refuse service to a same-sex couple. In more dangerous scenarios, critics foresee RFRA being used by doctors to withhold medically-necessary information from their patients based on the doctors’ religious beliefs.

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A similar bill became the source of widespread outrage last year after it passed out of the Arizona legislature. The state’s Republican Gov. Jan Brewer was forced to veto that measure due to backlash she received from major business -- including American Airlines, Google, and the National Football League. But this legislative session, state RFRAs came back in full force.

Nineteen states currently have RFRA laws on the books, and more could be on the way. According to the ACLU’s Eunice Rho, 22 state RFRAs were introduced in 13 states this session, but Indiana’s looks like it will become the first to make it to the governor’s desk.

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Jan. 5, 201506:26