In Indiana, social change often lags behind like an Amish buggy, and lots of folks there do not mind at all. Count among them the Republican majorities in the Indiana Legislature who just approved the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a measure that the state's governor, Mike Pence, contends is simply meant to protect the right of Hoosiers to live in accord with their religious beliefs.
Gay rights supporters do not believe it is quite so simple. Given the fact that the most overt proponents of the act were conservative Christians who very vocally oppose same-sex marriage, they are right to be suspicious.
There are religious freedom laws in 19 states already, and they are being pushed in many more. One such law was approved by the Arkansas Legislature on Tuesday but sent back for revision by Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday. There is a federal religious freedom law, too, that was backed by Democrats as well as Republicans and signed by President Clinton. But not all these laws are equal. The federal law aimed to protect Native Americans who sought to use peyote in traditional ceremonies. The laws in many states are balanced by other laws that assure discrimination cannot be justified by religious beliefs. In several states, the statutes only apply to individuals in disputes with government, not businesses trying to deny services to private citizens.
Indiana's law seems to be the most expansive. It gives wide latitude to individuals and business owners who claim their religious liberties would be violated were they forced to provide products and services to people involved in activities that offend the teachings of their faith. Who are these offensive people? Theologically speaking, it could be all sorts of folks — fornicators, adulterers, murderers, atheists, bearers of false witness — but the only example cited over and over again are people of the same sex who want to get married. Christian bakers, florists and photographers who refuse to provide services for gay weddings are inevitably portrayed as the individuals whose beliefs need to be protected by religious freedom legislation. That's why it is disingenuous for supporters of these laws to claim the issue has nothing to do with gays and lesbians.
Quite a few entities quickly recognized the underlying impetus for the Indiana law. A host of national businesses, state and city governments, sports organizations and groups looking for convention locations have announced they may stay away from Indiana if the legislature's action is allowed to stand. Indiana companies, including Angie's List and Eli Lilly & Co., are pleading with Pence to come up with an amendment to the new law that will make clear it cannot be utilized to discriminate against gay, lesbian and transgender people.
Pence has now asked state lawmakers for a legal fix that will get him out of the fix he's in, but not everyone in Indiana wants the governor to cave in to the pressure. George Rasley, a seventh-generation Hoosier, edits the "Conservative HQ" website. Rasley contends that Indiana has long been a welcoming place for religious people whose views clash with the shifting norms of modern society. That's why the state is home to the buggy-driving Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites and other small sects. He contends the firestorm of criticism is coming from "the radical left" and "urban elites." (How Wal-Mart's complaints against the legislation fit into those categories I'm not sure.)
"Far from looking for ways to repeal the new law, we urge Indiana lawmakers to embrace it as the latest chapter in their state's history as a home for religious minorities and a haven of religious toleration," Rasley says.
The problem, of course, is that this old Indiana view of toleration has slammed up against another group of Americans who, until recently, have found tolerance to be in very short supply. Now that the country has experienced a seismic shift in attitudes toward sexual minorities and now that it appears same-sex marriage will soon be legal from sea to shining sea, those who despise that change are becoming more and more isolated in a world that is moving far beyond where they want to go.