Outrage over Religious Freedom Laws Expands Nationwide; Alters Future Elections

Controversy over Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” is being heralded as a bellwether for national opinion by some LGBT advocates.

The bill gave businesses the right to deny service to someone if providing that service conflicted with the owner’s religious beliefs. After national backlash, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed a revision to the law specifying that private business owners cannot use it to justify discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“I think everyone on both sides of this issue was surprised at the size of the backlash, and that forced lawmakers to recalibrate that legislation,” said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science and international affairs and director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington.

Though the law ostensibly focused on business owners’ right to behave in accordance with their religious convictions, not everyone is convinced that this was the original intent of the law.

“I think the original intent of the law was clearly anti-LGBT,” said Stuart Gaffney, communications director for Marriage Equality USA. “You can look at some of the rhetoric that was used in the debates, in the legislature, the rhetoric used by the proponents [of the law], and also the interviews the governor subsequently gave when he was trying to defend the law in its original form.”

A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted in the wake of the controversy found that a majority of Americans sided with gay couples against the law. Fifty-four percent of respondents said it would be wrong for businesses to deny service, while just 28 percent supported business owners being allowed to do so.

“When it comes to LGBT equality, we are in some ways living in the best of times and the worst of times,” said Rebecca Isaacs, executive director at the Equality Foundation. “Americans overwhelmingly reject discrimination and discriminatory views against gay and transgender people and our families. Understanding of gay and transgender people has increased at a rapid rate as people got to know us more than ever before. At the same time, our laws have not caught up to that reality.”

When it comes to LGBT equality, we are in some ways living in the best of times and the worst of times.
Rebecca Isaacs, executive director at the Equality Foundation
Though a large number of states have laws protecting free exercise of religion, Indiana’s law was different, and diverged from the intent of other laws with similar terminology, according to Gaffney.

“The original way religious freedom laws were written was to protect people from laws that might restrict freedom of religion,” he said. “For example, if there was a law that said you can’t wear a burqa to school — these are things that have happened in other countries — these laws would say no, the government can’t restrict the free exercise of religion.”

Indiana’s law twisted that message, and appropriated the label of religious freedom to promote anti-gay policies, Gaffney added.

Public outcry has stymied attempts to pass similar legislation in other states. In this legislative session, religious exemption bills failed in Georgia, Colorado, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming, Isaacs pointed out.

In Arkansas, Governor Asa Hutchinson asked legislators to tweak a religious freedom bill before he signed it into law, citing a need to respect diversity while also protecting religious convictions.

The outcry has also influenced how politicians frame their stance on same-sex marriage as they look toward 2016.

“Increasingly, Republicans are saying this is a matter for the states,” Farnsworth said. “They’re not saying this is an abomination, and that’s a very big difference.”

That lesson came too late for any presidential ambitions Pence might have harbored, the professor added.

“What he has done is anger both sides,” Farnsworth said. “He angered the pro-gay rights community by passing the law in the first place, then he angered the conservatives for backing down.”

However, though lawmakers around the country have adjusted their bills and rhetoric in light of Indiana’s situation, some advocates are still unsettled.

“These laws are an example of government overreach, and could open a can of worms that would surprise a lot of people,” Isaacs said. “Even though Governor Pence signed an amendment to Indiana’s religious exemption law, what remains is still ripe for abuse. A pharmacist could deny a woman birth control, a police officer could refuse to defend a mosque, or a landlord could refuse an apartment to someone of a different faith.”