Do people have the religious right to discriminate?

The state of Indiana has sparked major controversy recently after the Governor, Mike Pence, passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which aimed to prohibit the government from restricting a person’s or company’s ability to practice their religion unless the government can show it has a compelling interest to do so. The vague description of the act has many people concerned; with such a wide interpretation, a person or company could cite their religion as a defense should someone sue against discriminatory actions, such as turning away lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning (LGBTQ) customers or employees.

The act itself has no specific wording advocating for the discrimination of any particular group of people, but the supposed intent of the law has no bearing on the reputation Indiana has gained over the past few weeks. Many sources have come to the surface, exposing holes in Indiana’s laws that reveal just how easily people could abuse the RFRA as a religious excuse for discrimination.

According to the Indiana Civil Rights Law, all citizens of the state supposedly have equal employment opportunities. As cited directly from the official government website for Indiana, “this means that you cannot be treated less favorably in hiring, firing, hours, wages or other benefits because of your race, color, national origin, ancestry, religion, sex, age, or disability. (Some cities or towns also prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity).”

Hidden in the last line of their statement within parenthesis, Indiana admits that the rights of LGBTQ are not inherently protected under the blanket of the state’s law; only within some districts. Technically, it has been legal for private companies to discriminate against LGBTQ, and the addition of the RFRA could make it easy enough for companies to claim their religion to justify their actions. Thus, a court could infer that preventing discrimination against LGBTQ individuals is less important than respecting the exercise of religion.

Pence and other Indiana representatives have denied the discriminating intent of the act after the massive amounts of backlash they have received. However, some citizens of Indiana are taking advantage of this new legislation. One small family-owned pizzeria in Indiana has expressed their support for this law, as it would be “against their religion to provide pizzas for a gay marriage” and have since closed their doors after the news coverage brought a negative spotlight on their business.

In the following week, Pence has spoken out to correct the supposed misunderstanding of RFRA.

“I have come to the conclusion that it would be helpful to move legislation this week that makes it clear that this law does not give businesses a right to deny services to anyone.”

Pence addressed the latest amendment to RFRA that was signed into law April 2 by saying, “enhances protection in religious liberty cases for groups of individuals and businesses in conscience decisions that do not involve provision of goods and services, employment and housing.” The main criticism with this apparent “fix” for RFRA is that the rights and protections for LGBTQ have remained unaddressed within the state’s laws. The solution provided seems to merely clarify that one cannot cite religious discrimination as an explanation. Until Indiana confronts their lack of LGBTQ rights, that percentage of the state’s population will remain a vulnerable target.

The question of LGBTQ rights and religious rights have become two of the largest controversial issues of the decade, and Indiana’s conservative politics colliding with its diverse population has attracted the country’s notice. As Indiana is certainly not the only state with RFRA-type legislation, the spotlight will most likely lead to conversations across the United States, discussing the balance between religion and LGBTQ rights and whether these two movements will work in harmony or divide the nation further.

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