Public Opinion and Religious Freedom: Learning from Indiana

The Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) has garnered a fury of public attention in recent days. Despite not referencing sexual orientation, the bill, in its original form, was touted to provide legal justification for discrimination of members of the LGBTQ community. Fueled by the media, public opinion of this bill turned increasingly hostile towards both its supporters and the entire state of Indiana. While the original Indiana RFRA was amended to remove the controversial language, damage to the reputation of Indiana’s lawmakers and residents has been done, showcasing the power of public opinion in America today.

Advocates of the bill argued that the Indiana RFRA was similar to the federal RFRA, which was signed into law under President Bill Clinton in 1993. The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 prohibits the “government (from) substantially burden(ing) a person’s exercise of religion” unless there is a compelling government interest and the least restrictive means of furthering that interest are followed. The federal RFRA law was utilized to uphold Hobby Lobby’s objection with provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) that required them to provide contraception coverage to their employees in violation of their religious views (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores). 

"Welcome to Indiana" by OZinOH (CC: BY-NC 2.0)

“Welcome to Indiana” by OZinOH (CC: BY-NC 2.0)

Critics of the original bill argued that the Indiana law provided legal basis for discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community. They pointed to two primary differences between the Indiana law in its original form and the federal law and the RFRAs in many other states. First, the Indiana law “allows any for-profit business to assert a right to the free exercise of religion.” This extends an individual’s right of “free exercise of religion” to for-profit corporations on the state level. Secondly, the law makes a businesses’ right to “free exercise” a legal defense against a private lawsuit by another person rather than against actions brought by the government. In other words, the Indiana law gives businesses the legal right to claim “free exercise” as a defense against being sued by private individuals. Thus, in the original language of the law, businesses would be allowed to deny services to individuals if doing so violated their right to “free exercise”.

The public’s opinion, or their collective attitudes and beliefs about government and politics, of the issue is important in understanding why Indiana’s RFRA is so controversial. Public opinion of same-sex marriage in the United States has changed remarkably over the past years. In 1996, only 27% of Americans supported same-sex marriage. Today, over 50% of Americans support it. Because support for same-sex marriage has grown, the political issue is increasingly contentious in America today. Additionally, the media, operating in both alarm and patrol functions, increases the public’s awareness of divisive issues and frames political issues by interpreting the information in a particular way.

The strong tide of public opinion against the bill resulted in hostility towards the state of Indiana and eventually led to the removal of the bill’s controversial language through an amendment to the bill. While Democrats spoke out against the original wording of the Indiana RFRA, even Republicans changed their tune on the law because of mounting pressure from their constituents. The Republican Governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, who originally supported a similar bill in his state, made public his intention to change the language of the proposed Arkansas RFRA. Republican presidential hopefuls have also changed their tune on the law. Public opinion, for better or worse, is a powerful agent of change.

Should businesses have the right to deny service to individuals for religious reasons? Stated differently, should it be legal for Christian, Jewish, or Muslim businesses to deny services to individuals for religious reasons? What do you think?

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