Indiana’s governor hung a “Gays Not Wanted” sign across the state last week, and San Francisco was the first city in the nation to respond to the insulting salutation with a boycott.
Mayor Ed Lee took offense at Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed into law by Republican Governor Mike Pence, which allows individuals and businesses to discriminate against people they are uncomfortable around. “San Francisco taxpayers will not subsidize legally-sanctioned discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people by the State of Indiana,” he said.
The legislation mirrors laws already passed in around 20 states, mostly in the South. The laws are tailored after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (pdf), which was authored by Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York), passed overwhelmingly by a bipartisan Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court said Congress overstepped its authority and in City of Boerne v. Flores ruled the law only applied to actions on the federal level. So states began passing their own versions.
Mayor Lee said San Francisco city departments would not send publicly-funded employees to Indiana unless it was essential to public health and safety. That is mostly a symbolic gesture, but the mayor’s sentiment was joined by a lot of the region’s major tech companies, and their gestures could be more than an upraised middle finger.
Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff immediately tweeted that he was canceling “all programs that require our customers/employees to travel to Indiana to face discrimination.” The cloud-computing company recently acquired Indianapolis-based marketing software company ExactTarget for $2.5 billion.
The Indiana law allows individuals or businesses not to consort with people when that action puts a “substantial burden” on their religious beliefs. If a legal action for bias is brought, the court must weigh those beliefs against the state’s “compelling interest” in preventing discrimination. In essence, religious beliefs are a legal defense against claims of discrimination.
Arkansas has a similar measure awaiting the signature of Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson, but Arizona’s governor vetoed one last year.
Governor Pence and other defenders of the law say it is about religious freedom, not gays and lesbians. Pence said, “If I thought it legalized discrimination I would have vetoed it.”
As Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times pointed out, that assertion was belied by the presence of Eric Miller at the signing ceremony, which was done privately without media present. Miller runs the website Advance America, a major promoter of the law. It features a video of Pence praising Miller perched just above a link to an explanation about why the law is important:
“Churches, Christian businesses and individuals deserve protection from those who support homosexual marriages and those who support government recognition and approval of gender identity (men who dress as women). SB 101 will help provide the protection!”
And, in case Governor Pence missed the point he was making, Miller outlined three examples where the law would be useful:
“Christian bakers, florists and photographers should not be punished for refusing to participate in a homosexual marriage; a Christian business should not be punished for refusing to allow a man to use the women’s restroom; and a church should not be punished because they refuse to let the church be used for a homosexual wedding.”
Can restaurants and movie theaters now kick a gay couple out for holding hands? Will gay basketball players be banned from the NCAA basketball tournament Final Four in Indianapolis for rubbing up against other players? Those perplexing questions and more will all be up to the Indiana courts, but fortunately they have the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to guide them.