Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act is just the latest so-called “religious freedom law” that gives businesses the right to discriminate against gay patrons under the guise of protecting the business owners’ rights to practice their faith freely.
The law should be repealed, although that seems unlikely, given that the Republican party controls both the House and the Senate in Indiana. But the response to the bill by many in Indiana — not to mention the reaction from activists and sympathetic lawmakers in other states considering similar legislation — shows a way to fight back against state legislatures set on passing offensive laws.
The Indiana law, which was signed by Republican Governor Mike Pence last week, states that the government cannot "substantially burden" a person's right to practice their religion, unless the state has a compelling interest in doing so. It is, in part, the definition of compelling interest that has made the law so controversial. Indiana does not have a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, meaning that gay people who have been denied service would have trouble arguing in court that the state of Indiana is required to defend their civil rights. And because — unlike most other freedom of religion laws — the definition of "person" in Indiana's statute includes for-profit businesses, legal discrimination can happen in all corners of the state.
The reaction against the law has been fierce. Business leaders from across the country have condemned the bill, and many have vowed to cancel any conferences they were planning on holding in the Hoosier State until the law is repealed. Angie's List, a tech company that provides reviews of contractors, said that, in light of the new law, it would abandon its deal to expand its Indianapolis headquarters. The NCAA, which is hosting the finals of its college basketball tournament in Indianapolis, said it was "deeply concerned" about the impact of the legislation on players and fans. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy banned state-funded travel to Indiana in protest.
But the most inspiring opposition is coming from Hoosiers themselves. Shop owners across the state have taken it upon themselves to post stickers on their doors saying "This Business Serves Everyone" as a way to advertise their non-discriminatory practices. This campaign is similar to a strategy employed to derail a religious freedom law that was up for debate in Oklahoma earlier this year. In that case, Democratic state Representative Emily Virgin proposed an amendment that would force any business looking to take advantage of the law to post a sticker saying which groups they would refuse to serve. Oklahoma's religious freedom law was pulled from floor debate.
Indiana leaders are backpedaling in the wake of this opposition. Pence has called for adding language clarifying that the law does not discriminate against gay people. Some lawmakers have called for the repeal of the law entirely.
Regardless of whether the law is repealed, sticker campaigns such as the ones in Indiana can be an effective way of fighting back against prejudice. And it is heartening to note that so many customers want to patronize businesses that they know don't discriminate, and that so many business owners want to welcome customers of all backgrounds.