Lawmakers in the state of Indiana have agreed on new language for a controversial “religious freedom” law that aims to ensure businesses there can’t discriminate against customers amid a nationwide backlash.
State Senate President Pro Tem David Long (R-Fort Wayne) unveiled the proposed change on Thursday morning and said it will “unequivocally state that Indiana’s (religious freedom) law does not and will not be able to discriminate against anyone, anywhere at any time,” according to USA Today.
According to a copy of the proposal, the language amends the recently authorized Religious Freedom Restoration Act, also known as RFRA, by clarifying that the legislation does not allow state businesses to refuse service or goods “on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or United States military service.”
Lawmakers in the Hoosier State rushed to come up with a fix for RFRA after a firestorm erupted following the decision last week by Governor Mike Pence, a Republican, to sign the bill into law.
Critics of the act, including the Obama administration, said it would unfairly allow businesses in Indiana to discriminate patrons based on sexual orientation or gender identity, giving proprietors the power to shun the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community under the guise of religious protection.
“The law in Indiana applies to private transactions as well and that’s why we’ve seen such a bipartisan political outcry against the law,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday, adding the administration believes RFRA “flies in the face of the kind of values that people across the country strongly support.”
“What was intended as a message of inclusion was interpreted as a message of exclusion, especially for the LGBT community,” Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma told reporters at news conference on Thursday morning when the proposal was rolled out, according to ABC News. “Nothing could have been further from the truth, but it was clear the perception had to be addressed.”
The legislation has spawned a massive reaction from coast to coast and has prompted some state businesses to say they’ll relocate if the law stays intact. Lawmakers in other states across the US have mulled travel bans to Indiana in protest, and rock band Wilco was among the major entertainers to voice their opposition, announcing this week they’re canceling an upcoming concert in Indianapolis over what they called “thinly disguised legal discrimination.”
The CEO of cloud computing company Salesforce last week canceled all programs that would require the firm’s customers or employees to travel to Indiana, and a representative for NASCAR said the racing league “will not embrace nor participate in exclusion or intolerance.”
Governor Pence said on Tuesday he had found it “offensive” that the public has interpreted the religious freedom law as a means of legalizing discrimination and urged politicians to draft a fix.
“I don’t believe for a minute that it was the intention of the General Assembly to create a license to discriminate, or a right to deny services to gays, lesbians or anyone else in this state. And it certainly wasn’t my intent,” Pence said. “But I can appreciate that that’s become the impression, not just here in Indiana, but all across this country. And we need to confront that.”
Without the proposed fix, RFRA as it presently stands allows businesses operating in Indiana to justify religious obligations in refusing services to customers. Part of the suggested fix, however, says services cannot be refused based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and clarifies that businesses can’t “establish a defense to a civil action or criminal prosecutions for refusal by a provider to offer or provider a service” on the basis of those factors.
Lawmakers are expected to meet later on Thursday and vote on the proposal.
National backlash against Indiana’s new religious freedom law has forced the governor to agree to clarify the text to ensure better protections for gays and lesbians. Two states have begun boycotting the state, while some companies threatened boycotts.
The White House spokesman told reporters Tuesday that the administration doesn’t agree with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence that the new religious freedom law is just like the federal law enacted more than 20 years ago by President Bill Clinton. The 1993 federal law was aimed at protecting the freedom of religious minorities from federal intrusion and was mostly concerned with the religious rights of Native Americans, with protections for tribal land and religious sites.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the Indiana law, dubbed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is much broader because it applies to corporations, not just people and religious groups. Indiana’s law allows the owners of for-profit businesses to invoke religious rights, which many fear will be used to deny service to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities.
“The law in Indiana applies to private transactions as well and that’s why we’ve seen such a bipartisan political outcry against the law,” Earnest told reporters. “[It] flies in the face of the kind of values that people across the country strongly support.
Earnest said that Pence had agreed to fix the law to clarify that it doesn’t discriminate against gays and lesbians, and Pence announced publicly that he had asked state lawmakers to make the changes by the end of the week.
“I don’t believe for a minute that it was the intention of the General Assembly to create a license to discriminate, or a right to deny services to gays, lesbians or anyone else in this state. And it certainly wasn’t my intent,” Pence said. “But I can appreciate that that’s become the impression — not just here in Indiana, but all across this country. And we need to confront that.”
Critics of the law say it does “create a license to discriminate,” because it would protect businesses which do not want to serve gays and lesbians – such as florists or caterers who might be hired for a same-sex wedding.
Also critical of the law are the governors of Connecticut and New York. Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy banned all state-sponsored travel to Indiana in an executive order Monday afternoon and announced the move via Twitter.
“When new laws turn back the clock on progress, we can’t sit idly by,” he tweeted. “We are sending a message that discrimination won’t be tolerated.”
The executive order directs all state departments and agencies to immediately review all plans for state-paid trips to places “that create the grounds for such discrimination and to bar any such publicly funded travel unless necessary for the enforcement of state law, to meet contractual obligations, or for the protection of public health, welfare and safety.”
As the executive order applies to the University of Connecticut, an immediate question is whether anyone from UConn’s men’s basketball team will attend the NCAA Final Four activities during the weekend in Indianapolis.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also issued a similar ban on travel on Tuesday.
“New York State has been, and will continue to be, a leader in ensuring that all LGBT persons enjoy full and equal civil rights. With this action, we stand by our LGBT family members, friends and colleagues to ensure that their rights are respected,” said Cuomo in a statement.
Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser issued an executive order banning city-funded travel until Indiana repeals or amends its law.
Businesses are also speaking out, with NASCAR becoming the latest critic issuing statement.
“NASCAR is disappointed by the recent legislation passed in Indiana. We will not embrace nor participate in exclusion or intolerance. We are committed to diversity and inclusion within our sport and therefore will continue to welcome all competitors and fans at our events in the state of Indiana and anywhere else we race,” said NASCAR Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Brett Jewkes.
In a related story, the Arkansas state legislature passed its version of a religious freedom law on Tuesday. It is now heading to the state’s Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, for a signature. There were several attempts to add a clause to the bill that would explicitly bar the discrimination of gays and lesbians, but they failed.