RELIGIOUS FREEDOM RESTORATION ACT
So what's this flap all about? In short, its a perfect storm. Two civil rights concepts — same-sex marriage and religious freedom — have been gathering force for years across the country and now have smashed together, finding just the right atmospheric conditions in Indiana to brew a super-tornado of controversy:
• Same-sex marriage. Or really a whole cluster of discrimination protections that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have been seeking, city by city, state by state, for years. But same-sex marriage is the marquee issue of the bunch. Its backers have won a flurry of state-level legal victories just since last fall. And now they could be on the verge of a U.S. Supreme Court triumph — what some expect in June to be a nationwide ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.
• RFRAs, or Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. These laws have been a growing trend in recent years. They trace their inspiration to a 1993 federal law, which was introduced by liberal Democrats, had bipartisan support and had nothing to do with sexual issues.
Rather, it sought to counter a Supreme Court ruling against a Native American who lost his job because he had ingested peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus, as part of a religious ceremony.
In the years since, about 20 states (not Nebraska or Iowa) have followed suit. Champions of these laws now cite other matters of conscience — such as abortion, birth control and same-sex marriage — far wider than using peyote. And they want such laws to apply not just to churches and individuals but also to private companies.
So far, there have been very few court cases to settle the boundaries between these two clashing concepts. Instead, most of the dispute has played out in legislatures, in the streets, in hearts and minds.
What makes Indiana special?
Last week, Indiana adopted an RFRA. But it doesn't have a statewide law specifically protecting gays from discrimination, as about 20 other states do (Iowa does, Nebraska doesn't, although in both Nebraska and Indiana, a few cities have local anti-discrimination laws).
That lack of a counterbalance has created fertile ground for argument over what Indiana's RFRA would do. Gov. Mike Pence insists that he and state legislators never meant the law to be "a license to discriminate," just protection for people exercising their religious beliefs.
But in a national TV interview over the weekend, Pence sidestepped direct questions about whether the law would permit discrimination against gays. And some lobbyists favoring the law have touted that it would let businesses such as florists and caterers refuse to serve same-sex weddings.
What else fed this storm?
• Timing. Indiana has been a marriage battleground for the past decade. Every year since 2004, a same-sex marriage ban had been proposed, finally passing in 2011. Then last fall a federal appeals court struck it down. And now the issue waits in the U.S. Supreme Court. It's an open wound with lots of lobbyists poised to pour in salt.
• Presidential politics. Pence, the Republican governor, is popular with evangelicals and social conservatives and says he's still pondering whether to run for the White House. Pundits disagree on whether this hubbub helps him or hurts him (some predict that it helps him at least in the Iowa caucuses, where evangelical conservatives are a big influence). In any case, it puts a national spotlight on Indiana.
• Social media — the new tabloids.
More than ever, celebrities and businesses adept at using Twitter, Facebook and similar media have a direct megaphone to a smartphone-carrying public. Star Trek's George Takei. Entertainer Miley Cyrus. Former NBA stars Reggie Miller and Charles Barkley. Apple CEO Tim Cook. Angie's List. The NCAA. Many popular and prominent folk have quickly voiced worry over Indiana's law or have declared boycotts or travel bans, magnifying what otherwise might have been just an Indiana tussle into a cause celebre.