Indiana Senate Bill 101, Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 2015, prohibits state and local governments from “substantially” burdening a person’s free exercise of religion unless that burden “is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest.” The law, signed by Governor Mike Pence on March 26, 2015, could be used as a defense in court. 

The act sparked enormous controversy locally and nationally as it was widely perceived to condone discrimination against LGBTQ persons on religious grounds. Prominent business executives, entertainers, organizations, and politicians condemned the measure. Grassroots protests, combined with unprecedented national pressure, led state Republicans to add a provision that prohibited discrimination against LGBTQ populations.

Indiana’s law resembled the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, known by its acronym RFRA, which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1993. However, it significantly expanded the definition of “person” to include religious organizations and private businesses in addition to individuals. Liberals and others interpreted this provision to mean that private businesses could refuse service to LGBTQ patrons if the business owner argued the service would violate their religious principles. 

Though Republicans rejected this interpretation, Indiana businesses soon proved these fears well-founded. Shortly after Pence signed the legislation the owners of a pizza restaurant in Walkerton, Indiana, said that their Christian principles did not allow them to cater same-sex weddings. The business was met with furious criticism and became a contested symbol of the debate.

In the years leading up to RFRA, two United States Supreme Court Cases hardened the divisions between advocates and opponents of LGBTQ relationships, presaging Indiana’s debate. In United States v. Windsor (2013), the Court held that the law denying federal recognition of same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. However, in 2014, the Court ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that businesses could decline to pay for employees’ contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act if it would violate the owners’ religious principles.

Indiana was the 20th state in the United States to pass this type of legislation, and although the law did not go into effect until July 1, 2015, the public reaction was swift and condemnatory. Objections among private-sector actors were especially notable and generated substantial media attention. Several well-known executives said the bill was abhorrent and would affect their business decisions. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff announced that the company would halt business travel to the state. Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly criticized the law. Several others, including executives at Eli Lilly, Angie’s List, Dow Agrosciences, and Indiana University Health, signed a letter calling on Pence to amend the law. Celebrities, including Stephen King, Miley Cyrus, and Rihanna also condemned RFRA.

In Indianapolis, officials worried about the law’s effect on tourism and the city’s image. Republican Mayor Greg Ballard came out against the measure. Mark Emmert, President of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), headquartered in the city, said the law could seriously hamper Indiana’s ability to attract major athletic competitions, though he kept the men’s basketball Final Four in Indianapolis, which was scheduled to take place just weeks after the bill’s passage.

Grassroots opposition was also fervent. On March 28, thousands filled Monument Circle to protest RFRA. They marched to the Indiana Statehouse as they chanted “No hate in our state.” The liberal advocacy group Freedom Indiana submitted a letter to Pence urging him to “clarify that the recently enacted RFRA cannot be used to allow discrimination prohibited under state or local laws.” The organization argued that RFRA posed an enormous threat to Indiana’s financial future, citing the businesses and organizations that had announced boycotts of the state. Several notable national organizations signed the letter, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign. Conservative supporters of RFRA, however, rallied behind the law while Pence blamed the media for the “gross mischaracterization of the law.”

Despite pressure from businesses, the public, and the media, supporters of the bill appeared unwilling to address whether the legislation condoned discrimination against the LGBTQ community. In a televised interview, Pence told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that he was interested in “protecting, with the highest standards in our courts, the religious liberty of Hoosiers. I signed the bill, we’re going to continue to explain it to people who don’t understand it.” Pence also would not commit to a position on new anti-discriminatory amendments, telling the Indianapolis Star on March 28, that he backed potential changes but reversing his position on ABC the following day.

However, mounting pressure left Pence little political maneuverability. On Tuesday, March 31, the Indianapolis Star ran what The Washington Post called an “extraordinary” front-page headline that read “FIX THIS NOW” in large white letters set against a dramatic black background. Below the headline was an editorial calling for new statewide anti-discrimination legislation. The paper addressed Pence directly, saying, “Governor, Indiana is in a state of crisis. It is worse than you seem to understand.” That same morning, Pence held a news conference at which he announced that lawmakers would amend RFRA to clarify “that this law does not give businesses the right to deny services to anyone.” Still, the governor maintained that the crisis was a product of the media’s misconstruction. “This law has been smeared,” Pence said.

On April 2, Indiana Republicans proposed a new measure that aimed to protect LGBTQ people under the law. Democrats, however, protested that the new language did not go far enough to ensure sexual and gender identity rights. Some argued only a full repeal of RFRA would fix the situation. Still, Republicans proceeded with their plan, earning the public support of several local leaders who had demanded a fix to the law, including representatives from the Indiana Pacers and Salesforce, as well as former Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson. 

The legislature passed and Pence signed into law language that disallowed the use of RFRA to discriminate against persons based on, among other categories, sexual orientation and gender identity. Notably, the Indiana legislature did not pass measures providing more comprehensive civil protections for LGBTQ individuals. “Hoosier hospitality had to be restored,” Indiana House speaker and Republican Brian Bosma said.

The RFRA crisis left scars across Indiana’s political landscape. Conservative activists did not approve of the new language, saying it would fundamentally subvert the purpose of the law. Liberals continued to protest that the protections did not go far enough. In January 2016, Visit Indy, Indianapolis’s tourism bureau, estimated that the city lost as many as 12 conventions and $60 million in economic investment because of the law.

Revised June 2021

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