A Christian denomination with historic ties to Indiana is threatening to boycott the Hoosier state if the governor approves an exclusionary “religious liberty” bill, the latest in a growing wave of criticism over legislation that could be used to discriminate against LGBT people.
On Tuesday, the Republican-controlled Indiana legislature overwhelmingly approved a controversial bill that supporters say is designed to protect religious liberty in the state. But LGBT advocates have opposed the legislation, noting that while it is modeled after the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA), it grants individuals the power to use religion as a legal defense even if the state is not involved in a case. This allows business owners to refuse service to same-sex couples simply by citing their religious beliefs, something Indiana conservatives have openly admitted is one of the bill’s intended goals.
Indiana Governor Michael Pence (R) said he is “looking forward” to signing the bill into law, but on Wednesday, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) — or “DoC” denomination, which claims around 659,000 members in North America and has been headquartered in Indianapolis for almost 100 years — sent a letter to Pence asking him to reconsider. The group threatened to relocate its general conference, which is scheduled to bring around 6,000 people to Indianapolis in 2017, if the state-level RFRA is approved.
“…The recent passage in the state legislature of the RFRA bill is distressing to us,” the letter read. “It is causing us to reconsider our decision to hold our 2017 gathering in Indianapolis.”
The denomination’s letter, signed by DoC General Minister and President Rev. Sharon E. Watkins and other officers of the church, went on to articulate a scathing assessment of the bill’s discriminatory implications:
Purportedly a matter of religious freedom, we find RFRA contrary to the values of our faith – as well as to our national and Hoosier values. Our nation and state are strong when we welcome people of many backgrounds and points of view. The free and robust exchange of ideas is part of what makes our democracy great … Our members and assembly-goers are of different races and ethnicities, ages, genders and sexual orientations. They have in common that they love Jesus and seek to follow him.
We are particularly distressed at the thought that, should RFRA be signed into law, some of our members and friends might not be welcome in Indiana businesses – might experience legally sanctioned bias and rejection once so common on the basis of race.
Todd Adams, Associate General Minister and Vice President of the DoC, told ThinkProgress the legislation would also pose very real “talent pool and employment issues” for local businesses as well as Indiana-based offices of the church.
“Any time you have laws that basically are permitting bigotry and hatred and wrapping it in the cloak of religious freedom, you are potentially excluding people who would want to come [to Indiana] and work for you,” Adams said.
The church officials concluded their letter with a plea asking the governor to take action, telling him “we urge you to veto the bill.”
The DoC’s letter is part of a groundswell of opposition to Indiana’s version of RFRA. Organizers of Gen Con, one of the world’s largest video game conventions, have threatened to relocate their annual event — which they say has a $50 million impact on Indianapolis each year — to another state if the measure is approved. Large Indiana-based employers such as Cummins, Salesforce, and Eskenazi Health have also decried the proposed legislation, as has former “Star Trek” star and LGBT advocate George Takei, who called the bill “backward-looking and divisive.”
Public pressure has successfully defeated state-level RFRA legislation in the past. When Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) was primed to sign a similar “religious liberty” bill into law in 2014, large businesses such as Apple, Intel, AT&T and American Airlines spoke out against the measure, and the NFL threatened to relocate the Super Bowl if it was approved. The advocacy, combined with vocal opposition to the bill from conservative lawmakers such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), ultimately pushed Brewer to veto the bill.
Thank you for the overwhelming response supporting our opposition to SB101. Unfortunately, Governor Pence has signed the bill. We will keep you posted (and please be patient) as we sort through the contracts, costs, and decisions around the 2017 General Assembly. We also have attorneys reviewing similar legislation in the states that are finalists for 2019 and in states where we would consider moving the 2017 General Assembly. Not all of these bills are the same and there is a lot of misinformation about each of the state laws.
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