Where are the supporters of Indian'as RFRA? Silent out of fear of 'bullying,' law's architect says

Posted at 9:09 PM, Mar 30, 2015
and last updated 2019-03-25 15:40:41-04

Republican lawmakers in the Indiana House and Senate have said for months that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act enjoys large support among their constituents. Now, facing a political crisis unlike the state has ever seen before, the question must be asked: Why haven't those supporters spoken up?

Since Thursday, when Gov. Mike Pence signed the bill into law in a closed-door ceremony, the list of critics of Indiana's RFRA has expanded across the state and from coast to coast.

With the possible exception of Pence, who appeared on "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday defending the law, few people are as exasperated by the apparent silence of RFRA's supporters than Curt Smith, president of the Indiana Family Institute – self-described as one of RFRA's main architects.

"I consider it our biggest problem," Smith said. "These votes in the General Assembly are not polls, but when 83 percent of the Senate, and 63 percent of the House votes for a measure, you can have some confidence that it has broad support in Indiana."

Only five Republican lawmakers voted against the religious freedom law. No Democrats voted for it.

'I had no idea there would be such blowback'

Even before the law was signed, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said his business would be forced to dramatically reduce its investment in the state. Angie's List CEO – and former Mitch Daniels campaign manager – Bill Oesterle soon followed suit by withdrawing his company's proposal for its east-side headquarters expansion.

NCAA CEO Mark Emmert said the law could potentially change the organization's willingness to host events in Indiana in the future. The Indiana Pacers, Indiana Fever, NBA and WNBA released a joint statement saying they remained committed to inclusiveness and against discrimination. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted a similar message.

On Monday, nine of the state's largest employers – among them Eli Lilly & Co., Cummins, Inc. and Indiana University Health – sent a letter to GOP leaders asking for immediate action on RFRA.

The presidents of Butler University, DePauw University, Indiana University, and Valparaiso University, among others, released statements reaffirming their schools' commitments to diversity and inclusiveness and condemning what Butler President James Danko called the "ill-conceived" religious freedom law.

Purdue University released a statement as well affirming its "unwavering commitment" to a university-wide policy on nondiscrimination – but stopped short of taking a position on the law directly. Purdue University president and former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels has not made an individual statement on the law.

While the vote was decided almost entirely along party lines at the Statehouse, the public reaction has been messier, often pitting Republicans against Republicans.


In Hamilton County, one of the most consistently Republican-voting areas of the state, the mayors of Carmel and Fishers expressed their dismay at the law. Fishers Mayor Scott Fadness asked the city council to pass a proclamation rejecting discrimination. In Carmel, Mayor Jim Brainard said the law "does not represent the values of the people of this state, or this city."

Indianapolis Republican mayoral candidate Chuck Brewer joined with Democratic candidate Joe Hogsett in condemning the law, saying that the legislature should consider taking "additional action to provide assurances against discrimination."

Incumbent Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican, held a press conference Monday saying the city would "not be defined" by the law, and calling for the State Legislature to take immediate action to fix it – including calling for language prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity to be added to the state's civil rights statute. Ballard had been a vocal opponent of the law even before its passage.

Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce President Michael Huber said his organization, which represents more than 2,200 businesses, was "100 percent in support" of Ballard's position. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which boasts more than 17,000 members, has also urged lawmakers to act "swiftly and thoughtfully" in light of the national reaction to the law, saying the Indiana business community had taken "a tremendous hit to its national identity."

Shortly after Ballard's remarks, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) President Lee Saunders announced the organization would be moving its 2015 Women's Conference out of Indiana. Gen Con and the Disciples of Christ have also said they will consider moving future events from the state.

The mayors of San Francisco and Seattle announced bans on the use of city funds for travel to Indiana. Governor Dan Malloy of Connecticut – a state that has its own RFRA law – announced a similar ban on state-funded travel to Indiana.

In his "This Week" interview, Gov. Pence was clearly exasperated by the magnitude of the response RFRA had received, blaming the media for spreading "misinformation" about the law. Smith echoed that sentiment, saying that while he had expected some negative response, he didn't imagine anything like what the state has seen.

FULL INTERVIEWGov. Pence appears on 'This Week' to talk RFRA

"I had no idea there would such blowback, and I really blame the other side for harming Indiana," Smith said.

'People who speak out … run a significant risk of being harassed'

Smith, who was among 70-80 people invited to the private bill-signing ceremony Thursday, acknowledged in a phone conversation Sunday that RFRA supporters haven't been as vocal as he would like.

And, Smith said, the decision to make the bill signing private – a decision Pence shrugged off in a press conference Thursday as "purely administrative" – hasn't done his side any favors.

"We didn't ask business leaders to testify because we knew they would get blowback," Smith said. "People who speak out on this issue, whether they're a pastor or a private individual, run a significant risk of being harassed by the other side."

Smith also said it's not in the nature of Christians to seek the public spotlight.

"The other part is in the nature of the largest part of this constituency, which would be the Protestant and Catholic Christian community," Smith said. "An element of that which is dramatically highlighted by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount is a meekness – a turning of the other cheek. There are a lot of people who are prepared to suffer."

Smith said that churches have "kind of withdrawn" from the public sector.

"Pastors will stand at the pulpit on Sunday and proclaim truth as they know it and understand it, but they aren't drawn to controversy," he said.

RFRA supporters few and far between – at least in public

While Smith and GOP lawmakers at the Statehouse have claimed a broad base of support for RFRA among Hoosiers, individuals and business owners on their side of the argument have been uncooperative in backing up that assertion.


Repeated requests on social media for voices supporting the law have been met with silence. And while RTV6 has received tweets and Facebook comments seemingly in support of the law on multiple stories since Thursday, requests to include those as part of our coverage have not been responded to.

[RTV6 invites anyone who would like to comment about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to do so in the comments section below or on our Facebook page.]

RTV6 and other media were not allowed to attend the signing of the bill – typically the chance for supporters to speak to the press – and were also not allowed to wait outside the governor's office to speak with those in attendance.

A request to make supporters available for interviews after the ceremony was denied.

A call Thursday to SB 101's sponsor Sen. Scott Schneider was not returned.

Smith said he understood why RFRA supporters seemed to be limited those already accustomed to the spotlight.

"The other side is very aggressive, they're bullies and they're yelling at us," Smith said. "The other side, whether they're feminists or abortionists or gay activists, are very in your face when you take a position supporting 'civilizing behaviors.'"

Nevertheless, Pence has found some supporters willing to go to bat for him and the law, mostly among GOP lawmakers and organizations that identify with conservative causes.

Indiana Right to Life voiced its support for Pence following the signing, as did American Family Association of Indiana Executive Director Micah Clark, who was invited to the private event Thursday.

Pence has also received vocal support from the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank.

On Monday, CNN reported that GOP presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum and Ben Carson had all come out in support of Pence and Indiana's religious freedom law, and that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker supported the "principle" of the measure. Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted a message of support from his official account.

Smith said he would be focusing his efforts going forward on encouraging more RFRA supporters to speak out.

RFRA about 'religious freedom, not discrimination'

"All we've done with this law is say that when a Hoosier citizen is in a courtroom, you have the ability to raise a RFRA defense," Smith said. "You've got to say, 'Hey, this is a sincerely held religious belief.' Cupcakes, hotel rooms, etc., are never going to rise to sincere religious beliefs. If, however, a group comes in in a gotcha moment and asks you to do something creative, a RFRA defense may hold up."

The pro-RFRA side has been dogged repeatedly by accusations that the law is a "license to discriminate." While Smith and Pence have remained adamant that the law is not about discrimination – against LGBT individuals or otherwise – they've run into conflict with a segment of RFRA supporters for whom that is clearly an issue.

On the website for Advance America, founder and executive director Eric Miller lauds the passage of the bill, saying that it was necessary to "help protect churches, Christian businesses and individuals from those who want to punish them because of their Biblical beliefs!"

Miller, who is pictured standing in front of Smith and directly behind Pence in a photograph from the private signing ceremony (shown below), laid out on his website three situations in which he sees RFRA helping religious objectors. All three relate to issues of sexual orientation or gender identity.

"Christian bakers, florists and photographers should not be punished for refusing to participate in a homosexual marriage," Miller wrote. "A church should not be punished because they refuse to let the church be used for a homosexual wedding."

Smith said he disagreed with Miller's interpretation.

"The case law does not support that view," Smith said. "Is there a compelling interest in not having same-sex couples discriminated against? The judge is probably going to say, if the legislative body of this community voted for [a non-discrimination ordinance], they're probably going to say that's a compelling interest."

While Indiana does not have a statewide statute protecting individuals from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, such local ordinances do exist in parts of the state, including Indianapolis, Bloomington, South Bend, and Marion and Monroe counties.

Though RFRA would likely not supersede local ordinances, Smith said, he acknowledged potential issues in municipalities without such laws.

"I guess there's a modest risk there of gay-rights dead zones," Smith said. "I don't think that's a fear. I don't think that's a problem. But if it is, I guess the Hendricks County Council or others could respond."

But, Smith said, very few RFRA cases raised in the more than 20 years since it was first signed into law have dealt with issues of sexual orientation.

"The vast majority of RFRA cases are small situations in which government tries to use a one-size-fit-all legislation that violates individuals' religious beliefs," he said.

And, despite all the blowback, Smith said he thinks the law is good for Indiana at the end of the day.

"Normally in my mind, as a corn-fed Hoosier, more freedom is a good thing," Smith said. "Hoosiers have more freedom as of July 1 when this thing kicks in."


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