Amid the partisan conflict brought on by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signing into law the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) last week, the intent of the legislation designed to protect religious minorities and its actual effect on the state is being lost. And no matter which side of the issue individuals are on, what’s absolutely certain is it will have a negative effect on the state’s economy.
The RFRA bill was signed by Pence during a private ceremony on Thursday and will go into effect July 1. Eric Miller, the boss of Advance America and a lobbyist on socially conservative causes, attended the signing. One of the bill’s mains sponsors, Republican state Sen. Scott Schneider, has promoted his belief that the bill will allow businesses the legally protected right to refuse providing wedding services to gay couples.
Last year, Indiana was locked in a similarly polemic battle over marriage equality which was only resolved after a court ruling overturned a longtime ban. For a second, forget the dueling arguments on both sides and the legal interpretations that will actually determine what the bill really means or what effect it might have. Perhaps the biggest issues with the legislation — in addition to its negative effects on the economy — are that it makes Indianans look like they are hostile to gays and lesbians, and that the act uses the wrong tool to reach its goal. Measures protecting religious freedoms are meant to be used as a means for religious minorities like the Amish, for example, to advocate for themselves in a secular world that is ordered by their laws of God and therefore foreign.
For a state that prides its manufacturing and agricultural base and uses “The Crossroads of America” as its motto, the bill hasn’t been well-received by businesses. And that can only be bad for hardworking Hoosiers. In 2013, Indiana’s gross domestic product (GDP) — the total value of goods and services produced in the state — grew by 2.1 percent to reach $317.1 billion, higher than the national increase of 1.8 percent and $90 billion more than it was 10 years earlier. Indiana’s GDP of more than $294 billion last year ranked its economy 16th largest among the 50 states.
Over the weekend, Pence said on ABC’s “This Morning” that he would not pursue changes to the law. The Republican-dominated state legislature won’t seek any change either, save for a more-narrow definition, to silence cries of intentional discrimination.
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Big events like the Indianapolis 500 and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Final Four men’s basketball championship are held in Indianapolis each year, bringing in millions to the state. The NCAA has already said it will consider moving the event in the future if the law is allowed to move forward unchanged.
Professional sports leagues including the NBA, WNBA and NFL have also issued critical statements. Groups like gamer convention organizer GenCom and the Disciples of Christ, which hold a meeting in the state capital each year, have said they are mulling moving their events, too. Angie’s List, a paid subscription-supported website that hosts reviews of local businesses that is headquartered in Indianapolis, has also said it will halt an expansion plan in the state. Additionally, the mayors of San Francisco and Seattle have announced bans on expenditure of funds for employees to travel to the state.
But what the bill really spells regardless of its possible discriminatory effects — and any are wrong — is less money coming in to the state, a public-relations nightmare for all Hoosiers and a legal meatloaf the size of Texas for law professionals to sink their teeth into.
In similar situations — with any divestment move or boycott — once a few dominoes start to fall, more groups and organizations tend to follow suit. Should this be a similar case, it will further make a dent in needed revenue for the state. As the nation and state continue to recover from financial difficulty, the last thing any government needs is a built-in excuse for businesses to leave or decide to cease active operations.
How a bill that is perceived as hostile to businesses and investment could make it through to and be approved by the governor is difficult to answer. How can the beliefs of Christians who disagree with marriage equality and dislike culturally changing attitudes toward gays and lesbians possibly be permitted to trump the needs of the many more millions to work and eat? How does that help the state?
It’s also quite a broad bill and will likely be subject to much legal interpretation. The RFRA says that the government can’t infringe on a person’s religious freedom unless there is a compelling reason to restrict that liberty and to do so in the least-restrictive way possible. But leaving the law up to interpretation will only open a year’s-long field day for law firms.
Ultimately, the bill might not have that significant effect on individual’s lives, but will surely hurt the state’s economy and set up a series of lawyers, judges and maybe the Supreme Court to make a decision on whether it is in fact sanctioning over discrimination. So if the intent was to further enrich lawyers, clerks and clog the courts with cases, it should turn out quite successful, but somehow that appears to be an unintended consequence. But maybe the real question to ask is if a majority of Indianans would be happier poor and culturally comfortable or working and divided by belief.
For some reason, I think most would choose the latter.
Noah Zuss is a reporter for TheBlot Magazine.