Here’s Why Indiana’s Anti-Gay Law is Different from other States’ Religious Freedom Laws

Wednesday, April 01, 2015
Protestors at the Indiana State House (photo: Doug McSchooler, AP)

Supporters of Indiana’s controversial religious freedom law have insisted their statute is really no different from similar ones adopted in other states. However, there are several key differences in the Indiana law that make it more discriminatory.


Religious Freedom Restoration Acts adopted in other states have focused on disputes between an individual or an organization and the government. For example, they might provide that a state can’t prohibit incarcerated Muslims to have short beards or stop church groups from feeding the homeless.


That’s not the case with Indiana’s law, which “explicitly applies to disputes between private citizens,” according to Judd Legum at ThinkProgress. “This means it could be used as a cudgel by corporations to justify discrimination against individuals that might otherwise be protected under law.”


Indiana trial lawyer Matt Anderson says the Indiana law is “more broadly written than its federal and state predecessors” and opens up “the path of least resistance among its species to have a court adjudicate it in a manner that could ultimately be used to discriminate…”


Anderson points out the legislation does not define religion, allowing for broad interpretations of “any exercise of religion.”


He also notes that “any action which may fall under the ‘exercise of religion’ may or not be ‘compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.’ In other words, even if the belief is at the fringe of what a religion may or may not hold true, it falls under this definition of exercising one’s religion.”


Corporations could easily discriminate against people under the law, Anderson writes.

“For example, as has been cited before, say a hotel corporation with a religious owner refuses service to an individual based upon his religious beliefs. Now, even if that person had not previously exercised such practices, this Act, which requires no more than two religious practices that fall into this category, would allow a corporation to begin a discriminatory practice in the name of free exercise (and remember now how broadly exercising religion is defined?),” Anderson said.


Although Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) defended his law Tuesday in a news conference, he also called for his state’s legislature to pass a bill ensuring that the RFRA can’t be used to discriminate. However, Indiana’s bad idea has already taken root elsewhere; the Arkansas legislature on Tuesday passed a bill nearly identical to Indiana’s. It goes to the desk of Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), who has previously supported the bill.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

The Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act – An Analysis of Its Controversy (by Matt Anderson, IN Advance)

The Big Lie The Media Tells About Indiana’s New ‘Religious Freedom’ Law (by Judd Legum, ThinkProgress)

What Makes Indiana’s Religious-Freedom Law Different? (by Garrett Epps, The Atlantic)

Indiana Gov. Pence Signs Bill Allowing Discrimination against Gays (and also Declares an HIV Emergency) (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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