Religious freedom bill could protect rights, legalize discrimination

Bobby Shipman

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Legislation meant to return religious freedoms to Indiana business owners, but opponents say allows them to deny wedding services to same-sex couples, has gained traction with its ties to a similar federal law.

The state bill, authored by Sens. Scott Schneider (R-Indianapolis), Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) and Brent Steele (R-Bedford), also known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), was heard Monday by the Senate Judiciary Committee and has gained nine co-authors. Schneider said a 2014 ruling in the United States Supreme Court inspired the bill’s proposal.

The ruling, known as The Hobby Lobby Case, addressed corporations that did not want to be required to provide abortion-inducing drugs in their health care packages, which was mandated by the United States Department of Health & Human Services.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby.

“In the opinion that the court handed down, in that case, they referenced the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (of 1993),” Schneider said.

He said he wanted similar language in what would be Indiana’s law.

“As I looked at Indiana statute, we have a fairly strong religious freedom component,” Schneider said. Section three of Indiana’s Bill of Rights states, “No law shall, in any case whatsoever, control the free exercise and enjoyment of religious opinions or interfere with the rights of conscience.”

However, Schneider said, the legislature in statute, has yet to speak on religious freedom since the constitution. “The language convened in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not exist in the state of Indiana,” he said. Schneider said some might ask, “Well, if it’s federal law, then why do we need it in Indiana?”

In 1997, the Unites States Supreme Court case ruled to invalidate RFRA when it applied to states.

“What this bill does is it sets up a test, or threshold, that government — that state action — must take or must meet before it restricts a person’s religious expression,” Schneider said. “So it speaks mostly to government action.”

Jeannie Worley, owner of Equinox Photography in Evansville, is a firm believer in the separation of church and state and said she does not agree with the bill. Worley said she has always been a supporter of the gay community and she said the law could allow businesses to refuse services to same-sex couples.

“I do feel very strongly about the right for anyone to get married,” she said. “And for shop owners to feel they can opt out because they are hiding behind the guise of religious liberty — that is just an excuse to violate the civil rights of others.”

Worley said she has photographed many same-sex weddings and civil unions and has always welcomed them and treated the couples with respect.

“Are they going to be able to put a sign on the window? Is this like the 60s in the south? We are going to have separation – gay photographers, gay bakeries,” she said. “This is not right. This is going back to a very dangerous thing and there could be a lot of backlash from the gay community.”

Schneider said there have been a lot of hypotheticals and misinformation circulated about this bill since its initial proposal.

“The goal of the bill doesn’t necessarily speak to that issue,” he said of the assumption that the law would allow the refusal of same-sex wedding services. “It does not mention sexual orientation in the bill at all. It doesn’t reference any particular faith or religion.”

The bill states that if a practitioner’s right to exercise religion is “substantially burdened,” they could use that in a court defense against state interference. But the state can oppose the defense if it “is a compelling state interest” and is “the least restrictive means of furthering” that interest.

Schneider referenced a case in Minnesota where state law required orange triangles be placed on the back of slow moving vehicles at night.

An Amish community felt that the law imposed on its religious beliefs to be “simple and plain,” Schneider said.

They offered to light their buggies with lanterns and use reflective tape, which the state denied as it was following the law in the least restrictive means, he said.

“There have been 22 years where the (federal RFRA) law has never been used to claim discrimination of any kind,” he said. Schneider said the law would only be based on a deeply rooted “organized system of religion.”

The bill has gained support in forms such as a letter signed by 16 law professors at Indiana University, the University of Notre Dame, Valparaiso University, Harvard University and Princeton University, Schneider said.

Although support for the bill has increased, some still fear its potentially discriminatory outcome. Worley said the first civil union she photographed was of her best friend from high school. She said the wedding was beautiful, the crowd was congratulatory and she was honored to be a part of the ceremony.

“One thing I can say about same sex weddings is that they’re exactly the same as opposite sex weddings,” Worley said. “It is just two people that want to commit to one another with a big celebration in front of family and friends, and they should have the right to do so without harassment or opposition.”

Now, 19 states have incrementally added RFRA to the language of their state statute and an additional five are in the process of doing so, two of which are looking to add it to their state constitution.