Confused About The Furor Over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Law? Read These 9 Things

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Casey Harper Contributor
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The passage of Indiana’s religious freedom law has incited uproar from the left and an equally deafening response from the right.

With the cacophonous debate on both sides of this issue, it’s hard to know what the heck is actually going on.

So here are the nine things you need to know about Indiana’s new religious freedom law.

1. The law is based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says that the government “may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” only “in the furtherance of a compelling government interest” and using “the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest.” The Indiana law is not specifically targeted at gay people and does not even mention sexuality, but gay rights advocates say the law’s language is ripe for abuse.

2. This law is not a get out of jail free card for “discriminators.” If someone discriminates against a gay person, the gay person can still take the discriminator to court and win. Now, however, the person accused of discrimination can invoke the state’s RFRA law as a legal weapon to defend themself. That weapon could win or lose depending on the validity of their case and the ideological leanings of their judge.

3. In the approximately 20 years RFRA has been federal law, not a single person has successfully used RFRA to circumvent civil rights laws. Some people have tried and failed.

4. This law already exists in different forms at the federal level and in 19 states across the country. Those laws passed without nearly the same hullabaloo.

5. A large reason for the controversy now is that, as American Civil Liberties Union Director Jane Henegar puts it, many believe “the bill was introduced as a backlash reaction to achieving marriage equality for same-sex couples in Indiana.” The previous RFRA laws passed before gay marriage was such an issue. This time around, gay rights groups are fearful that RFRA will be used to target them, particularly in conservative states where judges may be more willing to stretch the bounds of what RFRA has traditionally been used for.

6. Indiana’s RFRA law is different in one large way. The law has more explicit language that allows businesses or individuals to invoke RFRA in civil disputes. So, if a gay couple sues a cake decorator for refusing to service the wedding, the decorator can invoke RFRA. The language of RFRA in other states mostly applies to cases involving the government forcing someone to violate their beliefs, not disputes between individuals. However, the law has previously been interpreted to defend religious persons in civil disputes.

7. Indiana does not have a law explicitly prohibiting discrimination against gay people. Many other states do.

8. This is a largely symbolic fight that will have little effect on gay discrimination cases in Indiana, of which there are few.

9. There is a growing list of companies, governments and celebrities vowing to boycott the state because of the law. What exactly boycotting means varies per entity, whether that means discontinuing  investment in the state, cancelling shows, or any manner of things. The list of boycotters includes Angie’s list, National Collegiate Athletic Association, Indiana University, Yelp, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Ashton Kutcher, Charles Barkley, Hillary Clinton and Miley Cyrus. Some elected officials, such as Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray prohibited the use of public funds to travel to Indiana.

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Casey Harper