On March 26, Governor Mike Pence of Indiana privately signed SB 101, or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a bill that has instigated outcry from the LGBTQ community and activists. Citing the bill’s vague writing, opponents are worried that the bill will be utilized as businesses’ justification to decline service to LGBTQ customers. While Pence repeatedly stated that SB 101 is “about empowering from government overreach” on freedom of religion, the bill’s wording enables people to use it against the LGBTQ community, even if the community isn’t stated by name in the bill.
Specifically, SB 101 further “prohibits state or local governments from substantially burdening a person’s ability to exercise their religion.” To Pence, it’s a further reinforcement of the similar Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993, supported by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Believing SB 101 mirrors the prior act’s intent, Pence’s bill asserts that “a person’s … exercise of religion” cannot be violated in a commercial environment.
Unfortunately, such a claim can be disputed by close analysis between the two documents.
The 1993 act was established due to the increasing court cases regarding employees’ religious freedom, such as whether a Muslim prisoner’s facial hair was problematic; the earlier bill was concerned with personal religious freedom, while the later bill goes beyond individual rights.
In contrast, SB 101 states: “A person whose exercise of religion has been substantially burdened … or likely … may assert the violation or impending violation as a claim or defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding, regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding.” The indirect words, such as “likely,” or “impending,” imply that a person’s religious freedom doesn’t have to be significantly violated to take someone to court, which can impede on existing civil rights laws against discrimination; acting as a guise to conceal the real reason for suing another — discriminating against the defendant based on “their membership in a particular group or class.”
Since SB 101 states that suing based on this bill does not require blaming the government, the ambiguity of the word “person,” only enhances this conflicting interpretation of the bill’s language. While the 1993 act clearly defines “person” as a human being, SB 101 extends it to mean “a partnership, (an LLC), a corporation, a company, a firm, a society, a joint-stock company, an unincorporated association,” enabling businesses to sue others based on religious freedom. For example, Chick-fil-A can act as a “person” to protect the company’s Christian values, rather than an individual “person.”
No matter Pence’s reassurances that SB 101’s curious language does not entail LGBTQ discrimination, many have made it clear that they will manipulate the bill for such purposes. The right-wing group Advance America has bluntly stated SB 101 would allow Christian business to maintain their religious freedom, saying “Christian bakers, florists, and photographers should not be punished for refusing to participate in a homosexual marriage!” or “A church should not be punished because they refuse to let the church be used for a homosexual wedding.” Advance America’s leader and attendee at Pence’s private signing of SB 101, Eric Miller, said it is “important to pass Senate Bill 101 in 2015 in order to help protect churches, Christian businesses and individuals from those who want to punish them because of their Biblical beliefs.”
All of these quotes have one common word — punish. Such a strong word hints at a violence that businesses’ religious freedom are not exactly facing. How exactly are businesses being “punished?” In his statement of support for the first business that spoke in support of using SB 101, Brandon Dickson stated of LGBTQ customers, “I don’t agree with it. And I don’t want to be around it. I don’t want to see it … it’s alright if we don’t want to see it in our communities and our business.” According to his statement, businesses and communities are punished, because of the mere presence of homosexuality, or “it.” Dickson doesn’t reference a specific action done by the LGBTQ community, but demonstrates intolerance for the mere idea of homosexuality. This points to how these proponents are uncomfortable with the LGBTQ community and not an actual violation of religious freedom.
With the continuing legalization of gay marriage, Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act may be a new and legal form of LGBTQ discrimination instead of protecting religious freedom. If many still worry over a business’ right to deny service, then an alternative bill should be constructed to validate such a right only when a business is violently targeted.
Despite many protests, SB 101 is, truthfully a way to legally reassert an anti-LGBTQ agenda. In 2015, 16 states have constructed legislation “regarding the creation of, or alteration to, a state religious freedom law.” If these laws do not follow the same conventions set by the 1993 act, then these new state bills may mirror Indiana’s SB 101. If so, they must stop before any true violence is acted out on anyone no matter their political stance on on SB 101.