Three Years Ago Today: Mike Pence Signed Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act Into Law

By Shane Stahl • March 26, 2018 • 5:53 pm

March 26 marks the three-year anniversary of then-Indiana Governor Mike Pence signing the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which led the way for individuals and businesses to refuse service to LGBTQ people by claiming a religious or moral exemption. The legislation was immediately met with severe public backlash and is remembered as one of the earliest ignitions of outrage about anti-LGBTQ discrimination and “license to discriminate” legislation.

Pence’s anti-LGBTQ rhetoric stretches back to his very first days in political office. In 2000, he stated:

“Congress should oppose any effort to recognize homosexual’s [sic] as a ‘discreet [sic] and insular minority’ entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities.”

Pence has also spoken against the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the 2009 Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act, military service by LGBTQ people, and federal dollars being given to organizations that, in his words, “celebrate and encourage [certain] types of behaviors.”

In February 2015  the RFRA, submitted as SB 101, passed the Indiana Senate by a vote of 40-10, and then advanced to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration. On March 17, 2015, it passed out of committee by a vote of 9-4, and after moving to the House, passed by a vote of 63-31 on March 22. On March 26, Pence signed the bill into law, which then took effect on July 1.

Following passage of the law, reaction was swift, with opponents labeling it a license to discriminate, and entertainers and businesses threatening to pull investment and business from Indiana.

Freedom of religion is one of America’s most fundamental rights. However, that freedom does not allow people the right to discriminate against others. People of faith understand and believe in this, and many of them have spoken out against RFRAs that would allow discrimination against LGBTQ people based on a person’s religious beliefs, and understand that such discrimination opens the door for others to be discriminated against in the future.

Almost immediately, the staff of Freedom Indiana, the state’s leading group working to ensure LGBTQ equality, and several staff members of FFAA worked with other groups in rallying to roll back portions of the RFRA and create a roadmap to defeating anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

In addition, the CEOs of major companies including Apple, Angie’s List, Paypal, and Salesforce, also encouraged Indiana to repeal the law, and replace it with comprehensive nondiscrimination protections. The state suffered a major economic hit as a result of the legislation.

Several high-profile athletic organizations also issued statements against the RFRA, including the NBA, USA Track & Field, and the NCAA. Additionally, Gen Con, the world’s largest gaming convention, threatened to pull the annual event from the state. Some cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, and Seattle, banned ll government-funded travel to the state.

After only 10 days, a new piece of legislation was introduced by Speaker of the Indiana House Brian Bosma and Senate President David C. Long that amended SB 101, which would not permit citation of the RFRA in certain discrimination cases. The bill passed by a vote of 34-16, and was signed by Pence on April 2, 2015, and while the legislation was met with positive reaction, it still does not ensure full protections for LGBTQ people in housing, employment, and public accommodations.

Pence was eventually named the running mate for Republican candidate Donald Trump in the lead up to the 2016 Presidential Election. Then-executive director of FFAA, Matt McTighe, said in a statement:

“Reports of Donald Trump’s selection of Gov. Pence as a running mate are deeply troubling. First he was silent when the Republican Party advanced the most virulently anti-LGBT platform in American history. He has said he will sign into law legislation that has been introduced in Congress that would legalize discrimination against LGBT Americans. And now he is putting the man who led the fight for state-sanctioned discrimination in Indiana right next to him on the ticket.”

After Trump’s victory and inauguration, Pence’s anti-LGBTQ leanings would make their way into many of the administration’s actions. In February 2017, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rescinded guidance given to schools during the Obama administration on how best to support transgender students. The Department of Justice has also offered amicus briefs and testimony for the defendants in two Supreme Court cases concerning LGBTQ discrimination, Zarda v. Altitude Express and Colorado Civil Rights Commission v. Masterpiece Cakeshop. Additionally, Pence is thought to have helped create the proposed ban on transgender people serving openly in the U.S. Armed Forces. Currently, the ban has been stayed by four federal courts, but a new memo outlining implementation of the ban was issued on March 23 of this year.

To follow current legislation and litigation concerning LGBTQ discrimination, use our new tools, the Litigation Tracker and Legislative Tracker.

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