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April 17, 2015

‘Religious freedom’ measures see changes

Indianapolis--As if saying “April Fools,” legislators in Indiana and Arkansas reined in the scope of their “religious freedom” laws in the face of nationwide opposition and accusations that the measures were designed to allow discrimination against LGBT people.

The Indiana law, which had already been signed by the governor, was amended by the state senate and house of representatives on April 2.

The amendments specify that the chapter into which they are inserted does not “authorize a provider to refuse to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodation, goods, employment, or housing to any member or members of the general public on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or United States military service.”

It also specifies that it doesn’t “establish a defense to civil action or criminal prosecution for refusal by a provider to offer or provide” goods and services to those groups.

The new version of the law specifically states that “provider” does not mean “a church or other nonprofit religious organization or entity,” or “a rabbi, priest, preacher, minister, pastor, or designee of a church or other nonprofit religious organization or society.”

The legislation, however, does not actually outlaw anti-LGBT discrimination, nor does Indiana law in general. The state, like Ohio, does not have an overarching antidiscrimination law, although Marion and Monroe counties bar employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, along with Bloomington, Evansville, Indianapolis, New Albany, South Bend and West Lafayette. Tippecanoe County, along with Terre Haute, Michigan City, Lafayette and Fort Wayne, barred employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” would have, in its earlier form, allowed businesses to claim deeply-held religious beliefs as indemnification from accusations of violating those ordinances.

Despite the change, Angie’s List, a website allowing users to review local services and businesses, believes that the change does not go far enough, and will not expand their headquarters in Indianapolis.

CEO Bill Osterle released a statement noting, “Employers in most of the state of Indiana can fire a person simply for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning.”

The Indianapolis Star continued quoting his statement, “That’s just not right and that’s the real issue here. Our employees deserve to live, work and travel with open accommodations in any part of the state.”

Other companies who opposed the RFRA, however, expressed support for the change.

Also on April 2, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed his state’s amended RFRA, having refused to sign the original version sent to his desk by the state legislature. His refusal was, in part, spurred by executives from Walmart speaking to him against the legislation. Walmart is the largest corporation in Arkansas, and their opposition to legislation allegedly to “help” businesses follow their consciences, spelled its doom.

The new version of the Arkansas bill put it more in line with the federal RFRA, which passed in 1993 and requires courts to use the highest level of scrutiny in examining whether someone’s religious freedoms are being violated. The federal measure’s application to the states has been struck by the courts.

The Arkansas measure makes no mention of discrimination, sexual orientation or gender identity, which are also not covered under statewide anti-discrimination laws.

Republican lawmakers in both states said that they made the changes more out of concern over the negative effects protests against the laws would have on their states than an actual belief that the laws needed to be changed.

On April 7, the Texas Association of Business came out strongly against a proposed RFRA state constitutional amendment, pointing to the backlash against Indiana. Bill Hammond, the CEO of the conservative chamber of commerce, said that the measure would stunt economic development, tourism and conventions.

The TAB did not, however, express its opposition to statutory versions of the RFRA facing the legislature this session.

A Louisiana bill saw a paragraph that would have allowed businesses to deny benefits to same-sex married couples based on religious objections. The bill’s sponsor removed the paragraph rather than allow the bill to be scrapped. Sponsor Rep. Mike Johnson said that the bill was simply reiterating existing law, since Louisiana does not allow same-sex marriage.

Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, not known as a friend to the LGBT community, said that he will not sign the RFRA being debated in Lansing. The only way he said he would sign such legislation is if civil rights protections are expanded to include sexual orientation.

Similar legislation has passed or been put forward in a number of states, including Arizona, where Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed it at the behest of business leaders in the state.

Another measure was introduced in Ohio by state Rep. Bill Patmon, a Cleveland-area Democrat, and Oxford Republican Rep. Tim Derickson. They pulled the bill in February 2014 when it was pointed out that the bill was a Trojan horse created by the Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-gay law firm. Patmon thought the legislation was designed to protect the rights of people to wear indicators of their faith tradition, like crosses or yarmulkes.









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