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Indiana and Arkansas Religious Freedom: a Week in Review

— April 3, 2015

It is Friday, April 3rd, a week since the entire world, as it would seem, mouthed a collective ‘wait, you did wha?’ toward the mousy but likable state of Indiana. Governor Mike Pence’s Thursday, March 26th signing of his state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) began a wave of protestation reminiscent of Ferguson, or even 1968. In addition to angry mobs at the Capitol, the outrage included threats from major local companies like and Angie’s List to flee Indiana, and even states like Connecticut and New York to ban officials from non-essential government travel.

Despite the backlash, the Arkansas legislature had its version of the RFRA ready for Gov. Asa Hutchinson to sign four days later, which he vowed to do. Not surprisingly, Arkansas’ statehouse was mobbed by protestors shortly thereafter, and just like in Indiana, prominent business groups, including Walmart and Apple, expressed their outrage toward the bill, demanding a veto. Despite both governors’ bluster in the initial swarm of antipathy, both governors eventually blinked, and vowed to “fix” what’s broken in the law, requesting rewrites that would make the language less inviting toward discrimination.

Within one week, both states signed into law modifications to their RFRA’s through attachments on other pieces of legislation. The modified Indiana RFRA states that the law:

“does not authorize a provider – including businesses or individuals – to refuse to offer or provide its services, facilities, goods, or public accommodation to any member of the public based on sexual orientation or gender identity, in addition to race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, or military service.”

As Garrett Epps of The Atlantic rightfully points out, however, the language of the ‘fix’ and the term “does not authorize,” doesn’t explain what the bill does protect for. It is basically reiterating the words that Pence has stated vaguely from the beginning, the bill is not a “license to discriminate.”In Arkansas, Gov. Hutchinson also signed its version of the RFRA, including language changes that are geared toward making it more closely in line with the federal law of the same name, applying the law only to government activity and removing businesses and individuals from the bill’s target. Neither modification, however, goes as far as considering the LGBT community as a protected class, similar to minorities or the elderly.

In the bigger picture, these modifications may lessen the outrage somewhat, but it has been clear that for a vast majority of opponents, repeal is the only acceptable solution. Additionally, the backtracking has angered many, but not all supporters of the bill, placing the governor squarely in what appears to be an insincere middle. However, even the lukewarm compromise is a sign that populism can work, especially in the well-informed and connected social media age. The coming week will be a significant test as to how strongly-heeled the opposition truly is. Will a ‘fix’ be enough for opponents to move on with life as is, or will this be another weeklong domino run towards either full-out repeal of the law, or inclusion of LGBT members as a protected class for these two states and beyond?


CNN – Eric Bradner

The Atlantic – Garrett Epps

USA Today – Kevin Trager and Alyse Eady

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