by Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and Distinguished Professor of Law, Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law, University of California, Irvine School of Law
The controversy over Indiana’s recently enacted Religious Freedom Restoration Act shows the importance of context in understanding a law. The bill signed by Indiana Governor Mike Pence is very similar to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and laws that exist in 19 states. But the timing of the enactment of the Indiana law and the rhetoric surrounding it give every reason to believe that it was intended to allow businesses in Indiana to discriminate against gays and lesbians based on claims of religious freedom. Governor Pence reinforced this impression when on Sunday talk shows he repeatedly refused to deny that it would have exactly this effect.
Governor Pence constantly emphasizes that the Indiana law is much like the federal RFRA signed by President Clinton in 1993. He stresses that nothing within the Indiana law expressly authorizes discrimination against gays and lesbians.
That is true, but Governor Pence and supporters of the Indiana law are ignoring its context. Why is Indiana adopting the law now, 25 years after Employment Division v. Smith changed the law of the free exercise clause and 22 years after the enactment of the federal RFRA?
It is clear that Indiana’s goal is to permit businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Last June, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court for the first time held that secular corporations can claim to have a religious conscience and free exercise of religious belief. In fact, the protection of corporations and businesses is much more explicit in the Indiana RFRA than in the federal statute.
The Indiana RFRA comes soon after the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit declaring unconstitutional the Indiana law prohibiting same-sex marriage and soon before the Supreme Court is likely to recognize a right to marriage equality for gays and lesbians. It is telling that repeatedly in his interviews, Governor Pence refused to deny that the Indiana law would have the effect of permitting businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation. He also was emphatic that there would be no expansion of rights for gays and lesbians on his “watch.”
This is why there are loud protests against the Indiana law and calls for boycotts of Indiana. If Indiana does not mean to allow such discrimination based on sexual orientation, it should amend the law to provide that no one can discriminate against others based on race or sex or sexual orientation or religion based on the statute or on the grounds of religious beliefs.
Governor Pence has refused to say that he favors such an amendment to the law. He can’t have it both ways: either the Indiana law was meant to allow discrimination against gays and lesbians and the vehement objections to it are justified, or the law was not meant to permit discrimination against gays and lesbians and it should be amended immediately to say this. Discrimination in the form of the refusal to do business with a person because of his or her religion or race or sex or sexual orientation is wrong whether based on religion or anything else. Until Governor Pence and the supporters of the law recognize this and amend the law to say this, the protests and boycotts are justified.