The Indiana effect

Thousands of opponents of Indiana Senate Bill 101, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, gathered on the lawn of the Indiana State House to rally against that legislation earlier this week.
Thousands of opponents of Indiana Senate Bill 101, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, gathered on the lawn of the Indiana State House to rally against that legislation earlier this week. AP

The intense backlash against a “religious objections” law in Indiana and a similar effort in Arkansas should send a clear message to lawmakers around the country: Gay-bashing is no longer a fashionable political sport. Unfortunately, not everyone has gotten the word.

The controversy in Indiana is being followed closely by civil liberties groups around the country, including in Florida, because a sort of political Gresham’s Law seems to operate in legislative circles. A bad law in one state gives rise to similar efforts in others, particularly when it comes to the social practices and customs hiding under the cover of “family values.”

Florida has been drawn peripherally into the Indiana controversy because it has been cited — wrongly — as one of nearly 20 states with a “similar” version of the Hoosier State’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This is, at best, misleading. Florida’s version contains significant differences that render it unobjectionable.

The legislation was passed in 1998 and signed by Gov. Lawton Chiles without controversy. Like the federal statute signed by President Clinton, the objective is to protect individuals who want to practice their religion without undue interference from government: “The government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.”

The Indiana law, however, is a horse of another color. A report by PolitiFact made the distinction clear: “Indiana’s law says the law can be used to protect religious freedom in private disputes, even if the government is not a party. Florida’s law has no such language.” Further, Indiana’s law extends protections to corporations, and that, too, is different from Florida law.

Significantly, Indiana’s law came into play after courts around the country started striking down same-sex marriage bans, including in that state. Same-sex marriage opponents in Indiana were among the law’s biggest backers, and proudly present when Gov. Mike Pence signed it into law.

Critics believe it was intended to specifically cover situations such as the photographer who did not want to participate in a same-sex wedding or the florist who did not want to provide flowers for a similar ceremony. Gays and lesbians rightly complained that it seemed designed to protect those who discriminate against them.

On Wednesday, at the governor’s request, Indiana lawmakers were reportedly considering a change that says the new law can’t be used as a legal defense for refusing to provide services, goods or accommodations to residents based on their sexual orientation. In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, backed away from a promise to sign a controversial religious-objections bill modeled after Indiana’s. If the law were as unobjectionable as supporters claim, no such retreat would be necessary.

That should be enough to stop gay-bashing efforts elsewhere. Sadly, however, there are other objectionable versions of anti-gay legislation moving forward in states including Florida.

In mid-March a House panel approved a plan to allow private adoption agencies to deny adoptions based on “religious or moral convictions.” This followed a successful move led by Miami Beach Rep. David Richardson to get the House to strike down an unconstitutional, hence unenforceable, 1977 gay adoption ban.

Mr. Richardson apparently believed these are more enlightened times. If he’s wrong and the Legislature approves the gay adoption maneuver, the Sunshine State may be in for its own backlash.