Indiana Gov. Mike Pence recently signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law. This piece of legislation — designed to protect the religious freedoms of Indiana residents without fear of government intervention — goes into effect on July 1. The law is similar to those that have been passed or introduced in at least 20 other states — a restriction on government from placing a "substantial burden" on an individual's exercise of religion. It's also an increasingly popular way of appealing to right-wing, government-fearing constituents.
Since the law was approved, Governor Pence and Indiana legislators have faced an onslaught of backlash and criticism. High-profile celebrities, athletes and CEOs have been chiming in with their opinions about the law. Apple’s Tim Cook even wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post in which he spoke out against the Indiana law and other similar religious freedom laws in other states. (He also, of course, touted Apple’s open, transparent, non-discriminatory practices in his article). Openly gay Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has already banned city-funded travel to Indiana. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy issued a similar ban in his state. The NCAA has expressed concern over hosting the Final Four in Indianapolis this year.
People are not upset with this law because it gives Indiana residents religious freedom. They’re worried that that freedom could be interpreted as a way to enact discriminatory policies against the LGBT community — a way for private companies to refuse service to customers simply for being gay. Even though it’s a “religious freedom” law by name, opponents argue that it’s an “anti-gay” law in practice.
The amount of backlash was unexpected, and Indiana legislators are claiming that their intent has been misconstrued by the media and the public. Republican legislative leaders from Indiana have claimed that they are working to clarify the law. “To the extent that we need to clarify through legislative action that this law does not and will not be allowed to discriminate against anyone, we will do just that,” said Senate President Pro Tem David Long. Governor Pence has described the outrage over the law as “shameless rhetoric” and vowed that the law will not change. He claims it's essentially identical to the federal version signed by President Clinton in 1993.
Governor Pence has a point — the law has basically nothing to do with LGBT rights. Still, the fears that it might be interpreted that way make sense. In Indiana, there’s no state-wide anti-discriminatory law protecting the rights of the LGBT community. Same-sex marriage was approved just last October. Many religions, especially Christianity, condemn homosexuality. Over 44 percent of Indiana’s population identifies as religious, and the majority practices some form of Christianity. Without the adequate protections in place, the new law could easily be interpreted as a way to justify the homophobic nature of Indiana’s religious residents. The rights of one population should not be so easily traded for the rights of another.
If the law has nothing to do with gay rights, then why is it being discussed that way? The answer is obvious, but so far it’s been avoided even by the law’s most outspoken critics: Religion is, more often than not, discriminatory. The fact that simply granting freedom of religion causes people to be concerned about anti-LGBT practices shows that the true problem is not with the law, but with religion itself. If religion causes people to discriminate against the LGBT community, then maybe religious freedoms shouldn't be granted after all.
The backlash against this law has been a great example of the way the Internet can be used to enact positive social change. The web gives people the power to rally around social causes and to push back against legislation that unfairly discriminates against a certain segment of the population. The overwhelming unhappiness with the law has obviously been heard by Indiana legislators, who have responded and are working to ensure that everyone’s rights will ultimately be protected. Only time will tell how the RFRA will be interpreted, but at least the law wasn’t able to slip past without the scrutiny and skepticism that it deserves. It may not be an "anti-gay" law, but at least the government is aware that any attempt at legalizing discrimation will not be tolerated by the rest of the country.