Opinion

How one of the country’s least notable states made national headlines: Indiana and discrimination

There are a lot of bad things about capitalism. It’s an economic philosophy that produces winners and inevitably losers, which is a hard pill to swallow, especially when the minimum wage is not a living wage. One of the benefits of capitalism, however, is that it encourages democracy; it is self-motivating, and gives little reason to discriminate against consumers.

Or so we thought. “It is a sin … if we cater [a gay] wedding. We feel we are participating, we are putting a stamp of approval on their wedding,” said Indiana pizza shop owner Crystal O’Connor in an interview with Fox News. For this pizza joint, losing money is not penalty enough for discrimination.

Indiana’s state laws allow for this type of service under controversial legislation ostensibly protecting freedom of religion. In 1993, Bill Clinton signed the federal Religious Freedoms Restoration Act (RFRA), which was geared toward protecting religious freedoms after a tribal smoking incident with Native Americans resulted in a fruitless lawsuit. After the Supreme Court deemed the RFRA applicable only to the federal government, 19 state legislatures decided to recreate the mandate for themselves, giving new intent to the law.

When you hear a law called the “Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act” you have to wonder, what rights are being restored? And who is truly benefiting from this law?
A law institutionalizing the allowance of discrimination by any other name would be seen as unjust. The religions that are being restored aren’t ones frequently discriminated against. Indiana isn’t trying to fix Islamophobia or anti-Semitism, and no one would expect the predominantly white Christian state to do so.

What sets Indiana apart is the extra step its legislature took in “giving businesses the right to refuse service on religious grounds” (New York Times). The intent was most apparent in the Republican State Congress, which recently failed in an attempt to adopt a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage. Clearly, the legislators and their constituents don’t want to protect religious freedom; they want to legalize discrimination against LGBTQ individuals.

Indiana’s law does this by allowing corporations/people (they’re all the same thanks to the Supreme Court) to fight discrimination suits by employing their First Amendment rights. Indiana Governor Mike Pence told ABC’s News “This Week” the act is meant to “[empower] people.”

It remains unclear why Pence feels that this ruse is necessary when he has the support of his legislature and most of his state, but the sentiment remains an multifaceted one. In a sense, Pence is “empowering” a large majority of his constituents. Perhaps the real question is not about religion or gay rights, but whom we seek to serve through our laws and government.

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