“This bill is not about discrimination,” said Indiana Governor Mike Pence when he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into state law last week.
But it is.
Indiana’s Senate Bill 101 prevents a government entity from substantially burdening a person's ability to exercise their religion, unless the government can demonstrate a compelling interest and takes the least-restrictive action in achieving it. While the religious freedom law does not explicitly mention sexual orientation, LGBT people have a long history of discrimination justified on religious grounds and are well placed to read between the lines.
As same sex marriage is legalized in more and more states across the US, state lawmakers have introduced a deluge of potentially discriminatory bills. According to the ACLU there have been 24 “religious freedom” bills introduced in 15 states this year alone. Similar bills to the Indiana law are close to passing in Georgia and Arkansas.
These “religious freedom” laws have a few things in common: they are vague and can provide a legal basis for discrimination in abstract and subjective terms, whether on the basis of personal religious belief, or family and traditional values. They can also be used to justify discrimination and have the effect of further stigmatizing the LGBT community.
Greg Ballard, the mayor of Indianapolis, pointed out that the law would have economic consequences for the city: “Indianapolis strives to be a welcoming place that attracts businesses, conventions, visitors and residents.” He is rightly concerned. The law gives license to business owners to discriminate based on personal religious beliefs. The law could, for example, provide the legal basis for a business to decline service to a same-sex couple because of religious belief. A landlord could, citing religious belief, refuse to lease an apartment to someone of another faith. The vague law effectively sets personal interpretation of religion above freedom from discrimination.
US states should be leading the way in equality and non-discrimination, not passing laws that open the way for people to legally indulge prejudice based on their subjective interpretation of religion.