The threat of a nationwide boycott on the eve of the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament sent Republicans in Indiana scrambling to amend their anti-LGBT Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Now Governor Mike Pence, who signed the Act last week, has signed an amendment that specifically declares businesses cannot use it as cover to discriminate against LGBT people.
That pretty much undoes the law’s purpose.
Claiming that it had never intended the Act to be discriminatory, the state has, for the first time in its history, enshrined into law protections against discrimination on the basis of "sex, sexual orientation, [and] gender identity."
The Act’s original sponsors are incensed.
The whole series of events shows how rightwing Republicans have been left behind in a nation that has come to embrace gay marriage and LGBT rights.
When Apple, Eli Lilly, the NCAA, and NASCAR are all against you, you know your conservative coalition has fallen apart.
The UConn athletic director and the entire state of Connecticut joined the boycott. So did people like Southern California athletic director Pat Hayden, who said he wouldn’t attend the college football playoff selection meeting in Indiana out of respect for his son, who is gay.
NCAA president Mark Emmett warned that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act violates the core values of higher education: “diversity, supportiveness and inclusiveness,” and said the collegiate sports organization would have to consider moving its headquarters out of Indianapolis if the law wasn’t changed.
In Arkansas, Governor Asa Hutchinson reversed his support for similar legislation, and has now signed a new version of the law that exactly mirrors the federal religious freedom act.
Supporters of the Indiana law argued all week that their state was merely trying to pass a law similar to the federal measure Bill Clinton signed in 1993.
But there are key differences. Chief among them: Indiana’s law declared that corporations are people, with “religious freedom” rights.
Both the Indiana law and the federal government prohibit “burdening a person’s right to exercise religion unless government can show a compelling reason and the action is the least restrictive means of achieving it.”
But a “person” in Indiana is specifically defined in the law to include a “limited liability corporation, company, firm, society, joint stock company, and unincorporated association.”
The rightwing view that corporations are people completely upends standard definitions of freedom and individual rights.
The intent of the Indiana law is not to protect the rights of religious minorities against discrimination. It is to protect the freedom of business owners to discriminate against people they don’t like.
Like Hobby Lobby, which successfully asserted its corporate religious freedom to deny birth control coverage to its female employees before the Supreme Court, Indiana business owners, including florists and pizzeria owners who told reporters they wouldn’t provide services for gay weddings, wanted to use the law to declare their right to snub gay people.
Contrast that with the federal religious freedom law sponsored by Democrats Charles Schumer and Ted Kennedy, which was explicitly designed to protect real people who were members of persecuted religious minority groups. The Federal law was inspired by the case of an Oregon Native American man who lost his job in 1990, after a drug test showed peyote in his bloodstream from a religious ritual.
But that Indiana effort backfired—especially in Indianapolis, where signs declaring “We serve everyone!” sprung up all over town.
Even in Indiana, rightwingers can no longer proclaim their vision of America as a closed-minded, conservative Christian nation.
Now Republican Presidential hopefuls, who came out en masse in support of the Indiana law in order to pander to their rightwing base, have begun backpedaling, too.
It’s a pleasure to see them scramble—and a sign of progress fulfilling America’s true values, which are progressive and inclusive, and recognize that diversity is strength.
Ruth Conniff is editor of The Progressive.
Image credit: Getty