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Where Do the 'Religious Freedom' Laws Leave Us?

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Just when we thought that maybe, just maybe, the sexual orientation civil rights movement in America was finally starting to turn around and head in the right direction, we were sidelined by the lastest legislative news coming out of Indiana. A new bill would, through its language protecting "religious freedom," essentially allow any business to deny service to customers based on sexual orientation. Governor Mike Pence of Indiana claimed in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal that passage of Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) had made it imperative for the state to create a bill that would protect religious rights which, supposedly, the ACA was threatening. He also asserted that he would never support a bill that would discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation, even though many say this law does just that. While Pence cited that twenty other states do have Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, it's important to note that Indiana's version is unique. According to the Huffington Post, it also "applies to disputes between private citizens," which means that "a business owner could use the law to justify discrimination against customers who might otherwise be protected under law."

The only possible good news coming out of this incident is the sheer volume of support the LGBTQ+ community has received in the form of protest over this law's passage. Connecticut became the first state to actually boycott Indiana after passage of the bill. New York Governor Cuomo did a similar deed, banning all "non-essential" state travel to Indiana. Billionaire Warren Buffet told CNN in an interview that discrimation based on sexual orientation was "wrong." Several California-based companies have openly condemned the law, including Gap, Apple, Twitter, Yelp and Levi Strauss. In Indiana itself, nine CEOs of major Indiana companies penned a letter to Gov. Pence and state Republicans asking them to rewrite the Religious Freedom Restoration Act so that the language could be clarified to ensure no discrimination would occur. Still, with Arkansas' legislature attempting to pass a bill on Tuesday which mirrors the Indiana legislation, it's very clear that there will be much more controversy to come over this hot-button issue.

Frankly, we're more than a little upset that these bills were allowed to pass (yes, even if Indiana and Arkansas are red states, it's still unacceptable). Yet we're not entirely surprised—we had to expect that something like this might happen sooner or later. With all the progress that has occurred in the past several years to further the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, from states overturning bans on gay marriage, to federal legislative action and key Supreme Court decisions (for example, overturning DOMA two years ago), we tentatively believed that maybe our country was finally setting aside its hateful prejudices and coming to the same conclusion we've known all along: that everybody deserves the same rights. The problem is that this is as much a "moral" issue to lawmakers as it is a political one. That shouldn't be a problem considering we are supposed to have separation of church and state in all governmental affairs, but as we've seen time and time again, that is rarely the case. We've come so far, but if these events have taught us anything, it's that we are far from acheiving total equality. 

Fortunately, public outcry seems to be leading to action—lawmakers in Indiana are meeting today to discuss amendments to the law to ensure that sexual orientation and gender identity are protected; the changes will specify that businesses cannot use the law as a defense for refusing service to customers. Similarly, in Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson is asking for either a complete recall, or clarification to the bill before he signs it.

So where does this leave us? It's heartening to see that voices are being heard, and that public opinion is being considered—so it's important to continue talking about this and other issues of equality (or lack thereof). It's our hope that the progress we've made over the past few years won't be taking any further steps back, and that this misstep only serves as a lesson for what not to do moving forward.


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