By Michael J. ARVIZU
Before I begin this column, please take some time to extend your thoughts and prayers to the people of India and Nepal, following the devastating magnitude-7.8 earthquake, which has killed over 7,000 and injured over 14,000 people.
April began with the news that the state of Indiana was getting ready to sign a controversial new bill titled the Religious Freedom Law. Also known as Senate Bill 568, the term “We Have the Right to Refuse Service” has taken on an entire new meaning in the context of this law.
So what impact has SB586 had to the state, and what does the bill allow and not allow?
Without going into too much detail in this short column, let’s see if we can break the law down and focus on some key points.
SB586, authored on Jan. 20 by Indiana State Sen. Scott Schneider, basically says that business owners can refuse service to individuals based on the business owner’s religious beliefs. For example, a shop owner whose religion teaches that gay or lesbian relationships are sinful can deny service to a same-sex couple based on those beliefs.
Legally, the law gives a business owner leverage to deny such service.
Specifically, the law reads, in part: “Provides that a state or local government action may not substantially burden a person’s right to the exercise of religion.”
What the bill means by “burden”: “constrains, inhibits, curtails, or denies the exercise of religion by a person; or compels a person to take an action that is contrary to the person’s exercise of religion.”
In other words, if exercising your religion means not serving a same-sex couple because your faith says same-sex relationships (burdens) are immoral, sinful, or whatever adjective you want to place on it, you are permitted by law to deny service – and the bill gives you the right to do that.
However, it’s not as cut and dry as it seems, and there are conditions on what the law defines as “burdens” to the business owner. Not surprisingly, a proverbial tug-of-war is being fought between advocates of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual (LGBT) rights, and advocates of the right to exercise religious beliefs without fear of legal penalty.
On one side of the coin, a business could still get in trouble for discriminating against a same-sex couple, for example, if city laws are in place that forbid that kind of behavior. This is what is known as a “compelling government interest,” and it is written within the framework of the bill. The “interest” in this case, is ending discrimination by virtue of the city laws already in place.
According to an article in the Huffington Post, laws like Indiana’s freedom of religion act may serve no purpose, especially as America begins to embrace and accept same-sex marriages.
“The whole point of the law is to make sure a shrinking, anxious minority can continue to conduct business in a way that the majority increasingly rejects,” writes the Huffington Post’s Jonathan Cohn.
Cohn ends his article by asserting that laws such as Indiana’s freedom of religion act only work to encourage anti-discrimination laws in the United States.
Meanwhile, other states such as Arkansas are already getting ready to pass a similar bill. And there are no such bills currently in the California legislature.
Hopefully, this column will serve to clarify some of the complex wording of the bill. If you feel I have missed an important key point, I welcome you to get in touch with me, either via email or Twitter.
Reach Michael J. Arvizu at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter @thedjmichaelj.