Indiana still healing from scars of RFRA

Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Indiana’s law was modeled on a 1993 federal law approved by Congress with bipartisan support and signed by then-President Bill Clinton. The Indiana bill said state and local governments “may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion,” unless the government could show that it had a compelling interest to take action. That action had to be the “least restrictive means of of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

The legislative “fix” approved by lawmakers a week later, clarified the bill to say that it does not authorize any “provider,” which would include businesses or individuals, to refuse services to anyone on the basis of a number of factors, including age, race, sex, religion, disability, veterans status, sexual orientation and gender identity. The fix also amended the term “provider” to exclude churches and other nonprofit religious organizations, clergy and religious schools.

INDIANAPOLIS — It was called “the fix.”

A year ago Saturday, after a week of searing global criticism, Indiana lawmakers and the governor amended a controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act — signed into law just seven days earlier — to ensure the measure couldn’t be used by government or business to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people.

#BoycottIndiana had trended internationally, and companies threatened to scale back their Indiana operations. Conventions pulled out and the NCAA, which was about to hold its marquee Men’s Final Four basketball finale at the glitzy Lucas Oil Stadium, cast doubt on whether future tournaments would come.

The legislative do-over — and a major charm offensive called “Indy Welcomes All” — helped in some ways to blunt the economic pain, boosters say. But it also enraged backers of the bill who called the compromise a betrayal and said the law is needed to protect people of faith from violating their consciences.

The bruises linger still.

The original law “ran counter to everything that Indianapolis is,” said Clay Robinson, a founder of Indy’s local Sun King Brewery who opposed the legislation.

The reversal, said Indiana Pastors Alliance Executive Director Rob Johnson Jr., only galvanized RFRA supporters.

“This is a false narrative created by the left to say that we are somehow evil people by embracing biblical beliefs,” he said.

Indiana’s experience in a media firestorm may have been top of mind for Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal when he vetoed a similar Georgia “religious liberty” bill on Monday, saying the state can protect religious rights without discriminating against anyone.

But despite Deal's veto, the topic isn't likely to go away. Georgia House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle have vowed to bring forward a new version of the bill next year. That means Georgia lawmakers will have to walk a tightrope or face a similar fallout.

Indianapolis lost $60 million in future convention business, and Angie’s List, the Indianapolis-headquartered consumer review company, decided to halt plans to add hundreds of tech jobs in the city after the bill was signed.

Boosters say “Indiana” had become an unfair shorthand for the world at large for discrimination, and similar religious freedom bills in other states are still often labeled in the media as “Indiana-style” legislation.

“You read articles that say ‘don’t be like Indiana,’ ” said Mark Fisher, the vice president of government relations and policy development for the Indy Chamber.

The business and civic community rallied “to do the impossible” in changing the law and protect civil rights ordinances in local communities, Fisher said.

“Despite all that,” he said, “I think the lasting impact will be as other states look to do this, we will be the canary in the coal mine.”

Indiana and Georgia are not all that dissimilar. Both are solidly red states with Republican governors, and both chambers of their state legislatures are controlled by the GOP.

Both the Indianapolis and Atlanta areas are the dominant economic engines of their states.

In the weeks after Indiana’s controversy, a delegation from the Metro Atlanta Chamber met its Indy counterparts to discuss what happened and how to respond. Fisher and hospitality leaders later paid a return visit to Atlanta.

“We wanted to give them an idea of what was coming their way if this came up in Georgia,” Fisher said.

‘Spotlight on Indiana’

Though many states have RFRA laws based on a 1990s federal statute, Indiana’s bill was seen by many nationwide as a direct strike against the LGBT community. The Supreme Court was expected to soon rule on same-sex marriage — and would overturn gay marriage bans in June.

LGBT and business groups, led by the Indy Chamber and corporate titans such as Cummins and Eli Lilly & Co., warned during debate on the bill of negative backlash. But the ferocity of the response surprised even the most vocal critics of the law.

The RFRA bill’s opponents say they support religious protections but fear that businesses could invoke the bill to deny services or challenge local nondiscrimination codes. A rural pizza shop owner and his daughter made international headlines and faced threats when they said they would decline to cater a same-sex wedding because it would violate their religious beliefs. The business briefly closed amid the backlash.

Indiana passed its bill in a “perfect storm” of media attention, when 1,500 credentialed media were coming to town for the Men’s Final Four, said Chris Gahl, vice president of Visit Indy, the city’s tourism marketing agency.

Major companies such as Apple, NASCAR and Salesforce condemned the bill, and Indiana became a punch line on late-night TV. An estimated 1 billion negative social media posts and some 2,500 stories had been written or aired about the controversy in just 30 days, Gahl said. Convention bookings in Indy in the second quarter of last year dipped 43 percent compared with the same period in 2014.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s appearance on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” didn’t help matters when he declined to directly answer whether the bill would allow for businesses to discriminate against the LGBT community.

“It brought a big spotlight on Indiana,” said Chris Paulsen, the campaign manager for the LGBT rights group Freedom Indiana.

As the criticism mounted, executives at the Indy Chamber, Visit Indy, top companies and civic groups met in a 19th-floor conference room in Indianapolis’s tallest tower to flesh out language to make clear the bill could not be used to discriminate.

The broad strokes of that policy went into the final version of “the fix.” At a press conference, state Senate President Pro Tem David Long said the amendment would prohibit discrimination “against anyone, anywhere at any time.”

Chamber and Visit Indy officials also came up with a media response to the crisis called Indy Welcomes All. The campaign, pieced together in days, involved T-shirts and buttons and banners at the city’s airport.

With the finalists of the men’s basketball championship set to arrive, the $225,000 campaign took out full-page ads in the hometown newspapers for each team to let visitors know that Indianapolis is an inviting place.

Hospitality and city leaders also made sure to note to visitors that Indianapolis has had LGBT protections in its local civil rights ordinance since 2005.

A #LoveIndy social media push launched to help combat the #BoycottIndiana message.

“We were able to drown out the negative,” Gahl said.

But an October survey of meeting planners commissioned by Visit Indy found that nearly three out of five still cited RFRA or LGBT issues when asked whether Indianapolis had been in the news lately.

The usual answer in such polling is sporting events such as the Indianapolis 500, Gahl said.

Still, the Indy Welcomes All campaign and the local civil rights ordinance, Gahl said, “saved us from losing an additional 80 to 100 conventions.”

‘Easy to run away’

As the RFRA controversy gained steam, Josh Driver, a local technology entrepreneur, said he was at a restaurant with a friend and both were angered at the image of Indiana portrayed in the press. Over a bottle of wine, he said, the idea grew for a voluntary directory of merchants — from restaurants to wedding venues — that pledge to welcome all customers.

Soon after, Driver launched Open For Service, and merchants across Indiana started putting blue stickers in their windows declaring “This Business Serves Everyone.”

The directory has grown to more than 10,000 businesses in the U.S. and abroad. More than one-quarter of them are in Indiana, Driver said.

“It would be easy to run away from Indiana,” he said, “but the silver lining is people are staying and trying to make Indiana better.”

When Georgia debated its recent religious liberty bill, opened a Georgia page to direct people to participating companies, Driver said. A North Carolina page followed in the wake of the Tar Heel State's action to outlaw anti-discrimination ordinances that has caused a firestorm there.

When Pence signed “the fix” into law, many backers of the bill were furious.

“I would have bet my house (the governor) would have vetoed that bill.” said Johnson, the pastors alliance chief who attended the RFRA bill signing a week earlier.

“In a record-setting time of one week we saw an absolute cave-in on the issue by the Legislature and the governor,” Johnson said. “What we’re witnessing in Georgia is déjà vu for what we witnessed in Indiana.”

Johnson said supporters of the bill were called “bigots, discriminators and haters who were going to be single-handedly responsible for the collapse of the Indiana economy.”

He said Indiana lawmakers should have stood up to business interests, calling plans for boycotts “hogwash.”

The next steps

Perhaps an irony is that RFRA helped advance discussions about LGBT rights in Indiana by many years, business and LGBT rights groups say.

Just a few years ago, Indiana debated a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. In the wake of RFRA, however, lawmakers of both parties were openly discussing adding LGBT protections to the state’s civil rights law.

In fact, “the fix” put the first references to gender identity and sexual orientation as they relate to anti-discrimination into state code, Paulsen said.

The RFRA controversy also highlighted that there are no LGBT civil rights protections in Indiana law, she said. (There aren’t any in Georgia, either.)

Freedom Indiana, business groups and other allies are pushing to add “four words and a comma” — as in “sexual orientation, gender identity” — into state civil rights law. But the push this past legislative session went nowhere.

Business and LGBT groups were, however, able to kill a number of “bathroom bills” and other religious liberty proposals deemed as discriminatory, Paulsen said.

State Sen. Travis Holdman, a Republican lawmaker from northeast Indiana, tried to craft compromise legislation in this year’s session that would add the LGBT community to the state’s civil rights law, but also provide religious liberty protections.

The bill eventually was narrowed to remove protections for transgender people as Holdman said he couldn’t get support from his caucus. The bill called for a study committee on that issue.

But the bill failed amid opposition from religious conservatives, LGBT advocates and the business community.

Holdman, a lawyer and evangelical Christian who voted for the RFRA bill in 2015 and “the fix,” called what happened in Indiana last year “a debacle.”

Holdman said his goal is for the lawmakers of Indiana to find consensus on the issue before the matter of LGBT protections is decided by a federal judge with no consideration for people of faith. Holdman, who was bludgeoned on social media and elsewhere, largely by groups on the right, said he hopes the Indiana House takes on the issue next year.

“We had an adult conversation about the issue, which we’d not had up to that point,” he said.

Paulsen said her group remains hopeful it can work toward statewide legislation in next year’s session. But for now, Freedom Indiana is working with local communities to pass human rights ordinances with LGBT protections or add new LGBT language to existing local codes.

Recently, the cities of Carmel and Columbus passed new ordinances. About 40 percent of Indiana’s 6.6 million residents live in areas covered by local ordinances, according to Freedom Indiana.

But the piecemeal effort, Paulsen said, “is not optimal.”

Fisher, the Indy Chamber executive, said the state’s manufacturing-heavy economy is evolving into one with an emerging technology scene. But recruiting tech talent to a state seen nationally as being in “fly-over country” is sometimes hard, he said.

The RFRA debate put another obstacle in the way, said Jon Mills, a spokesman for Columbus-based diesel engine giant Cummins.

Cummins employs 55,000 people worldwide, with 10,000 in its home state. If engineers or executives are to work their way up the food chain at Cummins, they’ll spend time in Indiana.

“All the talent cycles through Indiana,” he said. “They have to feel welcome.”