Elected officials in Indiana are disgracing the reputation of the Hoosier state. The fight against LGBT equality in Indiana flared up over a year ago, when legislators proposed an amendment to the Indiana constitution, HJR-3, that would have defined marriage as between one man and one woman. An Indiana statute already prohibited same-sex marriage, but legislators attempted to introduce a constitutional amendment to reinforce inequality. Facing this threat, activists formed the grassroots organization Freedom Indiana. According to the organization’s website, “Freedom Indiana believes our state should promote religious liberty in a way that respects all Hoosiers.” Freedom Indiana successfully mobilized Hoosiers to defeat that proposed amendment last legislative session, but now the organization has been called into action again.
Under the leadership of Campaign Manager Katie Blair, Freedom Indiana is pressuring Indiana officials to fix the mess they have made. What is the mess? Its name is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, SB 101, or RFRA. RFRA allows businesses to refuse services to LGBT individuals on the basis of the business owners’ religious beliefs. It also allows individuals to cite their religious beliefs as excuses for otherwise illegal actions, such as domestic violence. Despite receiving over 10,000 petition signatures urging him not to sign RFRA into law, Gov. Mike Pence did so on March 26, 2015. RFRA is not entirely a partisan issue. Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican, spoke out in opposition to RFRA. The NCAA raised concerns about hosting Final Four games in Indiana with RFRA in place. Gen Con, a large tabletop gaming convention that contributes to the tourism industry in Indiana, also raised concerns about continuing to hold the convention in a state that discriminates against LGBT individuals and families.
The timing is remarkable. Hoosiers faced a hard-won fight for marriage equality in Indiana over the summer and into the fall of 2014. Now they face the challenge of RFRA, an act clearly organized in response to progress in Indiana. Freedom Indiana and its partner organizations, including the ACLU and the national organization Freedom to Marry, are fighting hard to prove that RFRA hurts Indiana individuals and business. I have received 29 emails from the Freedom Indiana campaign in the past few weeks urging me to sign petitions, to attend rallies and to donate to the cause.
Social media is also abuzz over RFRA. While Freedom Indiana campaign emails often state that RFRA does not reflect Hoosier values, the issue hits closer to home for me than just “Hoosier values.” RFRA exists in direct opposition to my personal values and the values of most people I know in Indiana. Many of my friends from Indiana have posted on Facebook in the past few weeks to decry the condemnation of everything about Indiana. I have done the same on my Facebook and responded in kind when my contacts post about how horrible Indiana is. It is important to understand the effects of RFRA, but it is just as important to practice nuanced politics. A few loud, bigoted voices may have the power to change laws, but that is no guarantee that those laws reflect the beliefs of their constituents.
Those constituents are not done fighting. Under a new law, SB 50, or the Fairness for All Hoosiers Act, that was passed on April 2, 2015, discrimination against LGBT Hoosiers in employment, housing and public accommodations has been limited. Concerns remain, however, about legal discrimination under RFRA. RFRA was not repealed, which seems the logical choice if legislators honestly intend to prohibit discrimination. News media have referred to SB 50 as a “fix”to RFRA. This “fix” is the epitome of backpedaling. Indiana legislators, particularly Governor Pence, experienced so much backlash from constituents after signing RFRA into law on March 26 that they had to take some action. Freedom Indiana and other Hoosiers, however, are not satisfied by the “fix.” Freedom Indiana has called for comprehensive nondiscrimination policies in Indiana to replace the current legislation. I wish I could be on the ground in Indiana to fight for equality, but for now, my contribution will be encouraging folks in Oberlin to learn the history of the issue and to distinguish between loud politicians and Hoosier citizens.