Religious liberty advocates are celebrating a major victory in Indiana, after Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed into law the state's new "Religious Freedom Restoration Act," a law opponents claim will lead to discrimination against the LGBT community.
Surrounded by Indiana religious leaders, Gov. Pence signed the religious freedom bill early Thursday morning. Despite immense pressure from LGBT activists, Pence defended the act as a necessary protection against undue burdening of religious liberty by the government.
"For more than twenty years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation’s anti-discrimination laws, and it will not in Indiana," said Pence in a press release Thursday (full statement below). "Faith and religion are important values to millions of Hoosiers and with the passage of this legislation, we ensure that Indiana will continue to be a place where we respect freedom of religion and make certain that government action will always be subject to the highest level of scrutiny that respects the religious beliefs of every Hoosier of every faith."
Indiana's law is based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which was passed unanimously in the House and with 97 votes in the Senate and was signed into law by Bill Clinton. As the Daily Signal's Sarah Torre explains, the bill was a response to the Supreme Court's Employment Division v. Smith (1990), which reduced federal protections for the free exercise of religion. The federal RFRA "prohibits substantial burdens on religious exercise unless the government can show a compelling interest in burdening religious liberty and does so through the least restrictive way possible."
Similar to the 19 other state religious freedom acts based on the 1993 law, Indiana's RFRA seeks to prevent government intrusion into religious liberty by requiring the state to demonstrate a "compelling interest" in curbing the free exercise of religious faith. The bill comes amid a number of religious freedom cases that have gained national attention in recent years and debates over the religious implications of Obamacare. In July, Senate Democrats announced they would push legislation that would narrow religious protections in regard to Obamacare.
As the Indy Star notes, the law was vehemently opposed by many LGBT advocates, some of which were high-profile figures, including Montel Williams, Colts punter Pat McAfee, Star Trek's George Takei, and novelist John Green. The CEO of Salesforce Marc Benioff declared that he would blacklist Indiana for future employees and customers, while the NCAA President Mark Emmert said he would have to take a close look at the law to see if it "might affect future events as well as our workforce." The governor's office was reportedly "flooded" with calls, at one point overloading the phone system.
Gov. Pence's March 26 press release:
Indianapolis – Governor Mike Pence today issued the following statement after signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (SEA 101) in a private ceremony.
“Today I signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, because I support the freedom of religion for every Hoosier of every faith.
“The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action.
“One need look no further than the recent litigation concerning the Affordable Care Act. A private business and our own University of Notre Dame had to file lawsuits challenging provisions that required them to offer insurance coverage in violation of their religious views.
“Fortunately, in the 1990s Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—limiting government action that would infringe upon religion to only those that did not substantially burden free exercise of religion absent a compelling state interest and in the least restrictive means.
“Last year the Supreme Court of the United States upheld religious liberty in the Hobby Lobby case based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but that act does not apply to individual states or local government action. At present, nineteen states—including our neighbors in Illinois and Kentucky—have adopted Religious Freedom Restoration statutes. And in eleven additional states, the courts have interpreted their constitutions to provide a heightened standard for reviewing government action.
“In order to ensure that religious liberty is fully protected under Indiana law, this year our General Assembly joined those 30 states and the federal government to enshrine these principles in Indiana law, and I fully support that action.
“This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it. In fact, it does not even apply to disputes between private parties unless government action is involved. For more than twenty years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation’s anti-discrimination laws, and it will not in Indiana.
“Indiana is rightly celebrated for the hospitality, generosity, tolerance, and values of our people, and that will never change. Faith and religion are important values to millions of Hoosiers and with the passage of this legislation, we ensure that Indiana will continue to be a place where we respect freedom of religion and make certain that government action will always be subject to the highest level of scrutiny that respects the religious beliefs of every Hoosier of every faith.”