Make no mistake, Indiana’s controversial “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA) is a veiled attempt to provide private business owners with the opportunity to use their religious convictions to deny goods and/or services to potential customers.(1) While the law itself does not make that explicit provision, it is what the legislation doesn’t say that creates the problem; i.e. there is no explicit prohibition against engaging in such discrimination. If the RFRA were left in that open-ended state,(2) a business owner could go right ahead and discriminate. If the customer were to object, the owner could say “So sue me”, thus leaving the burden of proof on the customer who must now calculate the cost in time, trouble and money that would be involved in accepting such a challenge.
Before this law was even passed, it was greeted with full throated fury by masses of individual citizens who were later joined by multiple, large, national corporations including Apple and Angie’s List. Given the chance to defend the RFRA on the Sunday morning political talk show, “Meet the Press”, Indiana Governor Mike Pence (R) repeatedly refused to provide even the semblance of a direct answer to the yes/no question about Indiana businesses having “the right” to refuse goods/services to customers. What he has subsequently promised is that the law will be sent back to the state’s legislature where “clarifying” language will be added to it.
The form this impending clarification takes is going to be most interesting: If it changes the law so that it is no longer open-ended and makes discrimination illegal, then the original purpose of the legislation will be completely negated and the grass roots religious conservatives who promoted it will feel betrayed and ready to exact retribution against the politicians who caved in to public pressure and approved the amendment.
As all these developments unfold, most Republican presidential hopefuls have leaped to defend the RFRA in its original form. Thus far, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio and Rick Perry have all weighed in, seizing the opportunity to better establish their bona fides with the aforementioned right-wing religious base.(3) This is a useful strategy when it comes to winning the GOP nomination. But it is a sure way to lose votes in the general election. Talk about “fools rush in….”
Finally, what is now playing out in Indiana will reverberate through other states with sizable blocks of religious conservative voters and legislators. Rather than admit defeat, they will look for ways to work around what is likely to be the closing of the open-ended Hoosier state law. In that case, watch for more confrontations, demonstrations and blowback.
1. To sell a piece of controversial legislation to the general public, politicians will cloak it in terminology that make the law as unassailable as motherhood and apple pie. Take the present case – how could anyone object to the restoration of religious freedom?
2. As the RFRA was ready for a vote, an amendment was offered to eliminate its open-endedness. It was voted down by the overwhelming majority of Republican legislators, thus making the real intention of the law all the more evident.
3. To date, only Rand Paul and Chris Christie have withheld their endorsements.