Pressure is building on Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence to veto a religious freedom measure that opponents warn would sanction discrimination against the LGBT community.
The organizers of Gen Con -- billed on its website as “the original, longest-running, best-attended, gaming convention in the world” -- were the latest to join a growing chorus of criticism aimed at Senate Bill 101, otherwise known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which is currently awaiting the governor’s signature. If signed into law, the measure would 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.
Critics believe the measure would act as a license to discriminate, particularly against LGBT people, on religious grounds. And now businesses and big names responsible for pumping tens of millions of dollars into the state’s economy are speaking out.
“For more than a decade, Indianapolis has provided tremendous hospitality and accommodation to our attendees, culminating in an estimated annual economic impact of more than $50 million dollars [sic] to the city,” wrote Adrian Swartout, CEO and owner of Gen Con LLC, in a letter addressed to Pence. “Gen Con and its attendees look forward to receiving the same warm Hoosier hospitality throughout the term of our contract.”
“Legislation that could allow for refusal of service or discrimination against our attendees will have a direct negative impact on the state’s economy,” Swartout continued, “and will factor into our decision-making on hosting the convention in the state of Indiana in future years. We ask that you please reconsider your support of SB 101.”
Pence has already stated his intention to sign the bill into law. But Gen Con’s Swartout isn’t the only person who may be giving the governor reason to think twice.
The group Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) posted a Facebook message on Tuesday urging Pence to veto SB 101, saying that it was “convening leaders to reconsider 2017 convention in Indy because of RFRA.” Chris Gahl, vice president of Visit Indy -- an organization that directs tourism to Indianapolis -- told msnbc that that convention is expected to draw 8,000 people and have an economic impact of $5.8 million.
“In the last 24 hours, we’ve received three calls from convention customers -- all three are conventions currently slated to be held in Indianapolis,” said Gahl, citing Gen Con and Christian Church as well as a music-related group. “In addition, we’ve received more than 25 phone calls and/or emails from people across the U.S. who are either planning a trip to Indiana or are slated to come sometime this spring or summer. They were calling to question the bill.”
“It’s hard to say what if any hard dollar amount this bill would cost the state,” he continued. “But we do know that there’s been a negative backlash predominantly over social media about the bill, and a lot of chatter about Indianapolis not being welcoming as a city.”
Among those voicing their criticism over social media -- actor and director George Takei, who penned a viral Facebook post calling SB 101 “backward-looking and divisive,” as well as Jason Collins, the first openly gay player in the National Basketball Association.
In a statement, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which is based in Indianapolis, told msnbc, “We are examining the details of this bill, however, the NCAA national office is committed to an inclusive environment where all individuals enjoy equal access to events.” The 2015 Division 1 Men’s Championship is set to be held in Indianapolis early next month.
Given that the championship is only 10 days away, Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports.com, told msnbc that it would be “impossible” for the NCAA to move the game out of state should it find the bill a hindrance to that inclusive environment the organization is committed to fostering. However, he added, the NCAA has a number of other big money events that could be in jeopardy if SB 101 becomes law. Those include the 2015 Big Ten Football Championship Game, scheduled for Dec. 5, the 2016 Women’s Final Four, scheduled for April of next year, and the 2016 Olympic Trials for diving. All three events are due to take place in Indianapolis.
“I can’t get inside the mind of the governor, but it should be crystal clear to him that if the NCAA makes that promise, it’s going to cost the state,” Zeigler said. “These are marquee, high-profile events, and the governor and everyone else in Indiana knows that moving them would be a big hit to the state.”
To be clear, the NCAA has not threatened to move any of the upcoming events, nor has it explicitly condemned SB 101. But the whole situation bears a certain resemblance to last year’s outcry over the passage of SB 1062, a similar religious freedom bill that cleared Arizona’s Republican-controlled legislature. As Gov. Jan Brewer was considering whether to sign that measure into law, a number of businesses spoke out against the bill -- including the National Football League, which many took as an implicit threat that it would move Super Bowl XLIX out of Arizona.
Brewer ended up vetoing that bill. Now, LGBT advocates are hoping Pence will do the same.
“We believe that the voices of the citizens and businesses and members of the clergy who’ve reached out to the governor should have importance to him,” Jane Henegar, executive director of the ACLU of Indiana, told msnbc. “A lot of those voices are not just within Indiana, but around the country. The passage of this law harms our state’s reputation as a welcoming place, and is a stain on our communities.”
Pence’s office did not return msnbc's request for comment. In fact, the governor's office stopped answering the phone altogether at one point, according to the ACLU, due to the high volume of callers.