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Will Indiana's Religious Freedom Law Legalize Discrimination?

After passing legislation last week that allows businesses to deny service to gay Americans, Indiana’s Governor Mike Pence (R) has been in a whirlwind of controversy. 

The bill, known legally as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), will not take effect until July, although many prominent voices are speaking out against it.

The CEO of Angie’s List, Bill Oesterle, recently cancelled a planned trip to Indianapolis after the law was signed.

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, who revealed that he is gay last year, also voiced his objections to the "anti-gay" legislation in an op-ed for the Washington Post.

But when you look at the RFRA itself, what does it say?

The RFRA “provides that a state or local government action may not substantially burden a person’s right to the exercise of religion unless it is demonstrated that applying the burden to the person’s exercise of religion is (1) essential to further a compelling governmental interest; and (2) the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling governmental interest.”

While national news media networks have focused on narratives of bias in the legislation, other voices have spoken out in defense of the law.

A reporter from news website MarketWatch spoke with a law professor, who remained off the record due to fear that he would be threatened by those who oppose the legislation. After reading the text of the bill, the professor said, “The law simply says the state can’t force you to do something that’s against your religion unless it has a very good reason to do so.”

The professor added that the Indiana law is no different than the federal bill passed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. 

The reporter noted, however, that despite the perhaps good intentions of the bill, that doesn't mean that "the new Indiana law will not be used to justify discrimination against gays in some contexts. No one can prove a negative, and we will have to wait for it to be tried in court."

The reporter also spoke with another law professor from Indiana University, Daniel Conkle. Conkle said that 30 other states have written and passed a similar type of legislation, with no public outcry. He also reiterated that the Indiana law does not state that businesses are allowed to refuse gays, but that businesses cannot be forced to do something they don’t want to because it goes against their religious beliefs unless there is a good reason for it.

Appearing on the ABC News program "This Week" on Sunday morning, Gov. Pence defended the law to host George Stephanopoulos.

“We’re not going to change the law, but if the general assembly in Indiana sends me a bill that adds a section that reiterates and amplifies and clarifies what the law really is and what it has been for the last 20 years, then I’m open to that,” Pence said.

It seems that only time will tell the effect of the RFRA in terms of discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

Sources: MarketWatch, ABC News,

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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