Why Indiana's religious freedom act could cost $50 million

The CEO of Gen Con, one of the largest gaming conventions in the world that annually takes place in Indiana, threatened to take the convention elsewhere if the controversial bill becomes law.

Alex Brandon/AP
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Friday, Feb. 27, 2015.

While many have voiced their opinions against Indiana’s controversial religious freedom bill, few have been able to attach a $50 million price tag to their concerns.

Adrian Swartout of Gen Con—one of the largest, longest-running gaming conventions in the world—wrote a letter to Indiana’s Republican Gov. Mike Pence claiming that if the bill becomes law, its negative impacts will affect its 56,000 annual attendees, forcing them to reconsider Indianapolis as its home.

Swartout wrote in her letter:

[Gen Con is] happy to provide an environment that welcomes all, and the wide-ranging diversity of our attendees has become a key element to the success and growth of our convention . . . Legislation that could allow for refusal of service or discrimination against our attendees will have a direct negative impact on the state's economy, and will factor into our decision-making on hosting the convention in the state of Indiana in future years.

The convention started in Geneva, Wisconsin in 1968, but moved to Indianapolis in 2003. Taking place over a four-day period, the convention attracts thousands of visitors from around the world, resulting in an estimated $50 million impact for Indiana's capital city. Many of its fans are applauding Swartout’s letter, feeling it reflects Gen Con’s spirit of inclusivity.

Is $50 million enough for Gov. Pence change his mind?

The bill passed Indiana’s House on Monday in an overwhelming 63 to 31 vote, mostly along party lines. While it awaits the governor’s signature, Pence has already expressed his support of the bill.

The Indiana bill allows individual religious freedom to trump other laws if they impose a “substantial burden” on the free exercise of religion, reported The Christian Science Monitor in a previous story. Religious freedom would prevail unless the government can demonstrate a “compelling state interest” and prove that a law’s religious burdens were “the least restrictive means” of furthering that interest. 

Gen Con may have addressed its concerns in its letter, but spokesperson Stacia Kirby said that the convention is under contract to remain in Indianapolis through 2020 and has no intention of breaking its agreement, the Indianapolis Star reported. The bill would, however, factor into future decisions.

Chris Gahl, vice president of marketing and communication for Visit Indy, noted that Chicago is Indianapolis’ main competitor for convention business. Illinois is one of 19 states that already has a law similar to the proposed freedom of religion bill in place.

As vice president of the city’s tourism bureau, Gahl said that the bill has more power to affect public perception of Indiana overall.

“Our concern is that there could be a misperception with this bill that doesn’t paint a picture of being a warm welcoming, hospitable place,” Gahl told the Indianapolis Star. “It doesn’t align with the brand that is Indianapolis, and for that matter, Indiana. Because it could impact our ability to win convention business down the road—and keep convention business—we raised our hand and said we do have a concern.”

Rev. Steve Viars, senior pastor at Faith Church in Lafayette, Ind., wrote an op-ed in the Lafayette Journal and Courier explaining that while many view this bill as divisive, it simply ensures protection to both sides of the table, and that overall the bill will have a positive effect in Indiana communities.

“Every group has its lunatic fringe. There are a few religious people seeking unreasonable accommodations to their theological beliefs, and there are a few liberals seeking to stifle religious expression wherever it's found,” Viars wrote. “The RFRA provides an important shield against the handful of progressives looking to force their views and behaviors upon good people of religious faith.”

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