Indiana religious freedom act: how big a backlash?

Despite an outcry from businesses and organizations, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed the 'Religious Freedom Restoration Act,' which critics say discriminates against gay Hoosiers and those visiting the state.

Michael Conroy/AP
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence at a statehouse news conference in Indianapolis Thursday. Pence has signed a religious objections bill that some convention organizers and business leaders have opposed amid concern it could allow discrimination against gay people.

The backlash against Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” has come thick and fast.

As soon as Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed the bill into law Thursday, vocal opposition came from businesses, organizations, civil rights groups, the Republican mayor of Indianapolis, and at least one church asserting that the law would lead to discrimination against gay people.

The bill allows business owners to refuse to serve gay and lesbian customers or clients based on religious objections. For example, a bakery, florist, or photographer could refuse on religious grounds to provide their services for a same-sex wedding, which is legal in Indiana.

“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,” Gov. Pence said in a statement accompanying the bill signing.

"There has been a lot of misunderstanding about this bill," Pence told reporters after the private bill signing in his office. "This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way I would've vetoed it."

The bill generated widespread opposition before and after Pence signed it.

The new law comes just days before the Indianapolis-based NCAA holds its final four men’s basketball tournament in that city. Will it do so in the future?

"The NCAA national office and our members are deeply committed to providing an inclusive environment for all our events. We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a statement. “We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week’s Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill. Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce."

The Human Rights Campaign in Washington (HRC), which works for LGBT rights, warns that the law sends a “dangerous and discriminatory message” regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

“They’ve basically said, as long as your religion tells you to, it’s ok to discriminate against people despite what the law says,” HRC legal director Sarah Warbelow said in a statement. “Astoundingly, Indiana representatives ignored the warnings of businesses and fair-minded Hoosiers, and now businesses owners and corporations are forced to consider other options when looking at states to invest in.”

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce and local employers – including Alcoa, Cummins, Eli Lilly & Co., and Salesforce – spoke out against the new law when it was being debated in the state legislature, as such other major employers as Apple and Wal-Mart did in other states where such laws have been proposed.

Soon after Pence signed the bill, Salesforce.com founder and CEO Marc Benioff announced on Twitter that he was canceling all programs that require its customers or employees "to travel to Indiana to face discrimination."

The San Francisco-based cloud computing company bought Indianapolis-based marketing software company ExactTarget for $2.5 billion in 2013 and has kept hundreds of employees in the city.

Also in response to Indiana’s new law, the Gen Con gamer convention and the Disciples of Christ church have threatened to pull their conventions out of Indianapolis. Gen Con is the city's largest convention, with 56,000 visitors last year and an economic impact of $50 million.

The Disciples of Christ church sent a letter to Pence this week threatening to cancel its 2017 convention in Indianapolis.

"Our perspective is that hate and bigotry wrapped in religious freedom is still hate and bigotry," Todd Adams, the associate general minister and vice president of the Indianapolis-based denomination, told The Indianapolis Star. Adams said the Disciples of Christ would instead seek a host city that is "hospitable and welcome to all of our attendees."

Other conventions have concerns, including Indianapolis-based Kiwanis International, the newspaper reports. The organization will draw 10,000 people to celebrate its 100th anniversary at a convention this June in Indianapolis.

"We have received inquiries from members asking if any of our international guests (of varying religions) might be denied service in Indianapolis. This is attention our city does not need," said Kiwanis International Executive Director Stan D. Soderstrom.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican, opposed the bill.

"Indianapolis strives to be a welcoming place that attracts businesses, conventions, visitors and residents," Mr. Ballard said in a statement. "We are a diverse city, and I want everyone who visits and lives in Indy to feel comfortable here."

Based on the same concern about businesses and visitors, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) vetoed a similar bill last year. The bill had been opposed by many companies as well as the state's two Republican US senators.

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