But a lot of the brouhaha over the new law fails to capture just how awful it really is. In fact, much of the coverage makes it seem as if the Indiana law is not very different than other religious liberty bills, except for the blowback the state is getting.
Here are six reasons that Indiana’s full-frontal attack on equality is far worse than anyone could have imagined.
1. It allows corporations to discriminate for religious reasons. There are a lot of existing state laws (and a federal law) meant to protect people exercising their religious belief. But as Garrett Epps at The Atlantic points out, Indiana’s law not only abandons the usual limits to religious expression, but it actually extends the right to discriminate to for-profit companies. If a major corporation in Indiana decides it wants to fire all of its LGBT employees on the grounds that the company’s faith requires those employees to be indigent, the law is on the company’s side. This isn’t a case of protecting elderly homophobic florists. This is a case of empowering major businesses to do as they please in the name of religion.
2. The law protects bigots facing civil suits. Epps also notes that the religious liberty defense must be accepted in civil suits. It’s one thing if the government decides to bring suit against someone for housing discrimination. It’s entirely another if a couple sues a landlord for the same reason. But under the Indiana law, the same defense can be used by the landlord in either case. Why is this a big deal? Because it’s meant to respond to a New Mexico court ruling involving a photographer who refused to take pictures of a same-sex ceremony. In that ruling, the court rejected the photographer’s claim that she was protected under that state’s religious liberty law on the grounds that the state was not a party in the lawsuit and therefore the law wasn’t applicable. The Supreme Court upheld that ruling, which is something the Indiana law is explicitly trying to prevent from happening in that state.
3. Gov. Mike Pence is supposed to be a moderate. Yes, the man whose appearance on television Sunday was the type of natural disaster usually confined to the Weather Channel is not part of the GOP far right. In fact, he’s angered Tea Party types for being too much of a squish. Yet somehow this man of the middle thought it was perfectly okay to sign into law a bill that enshrines discrimination. It’s a sign of how far the Republican party has veered to the right (and how much he wants to be on the national ticket) that Pence would feel comfortable putting pen to paper in this case. (That’s also why supposedly moderate Jeb Bush has also endorsed the law.)
4. This is the bill that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed last year. Jan Brewer was hardly the type of politician who would be carried aloft through adoring crowds at the Pride Parade. After all, this is a woman who ran a gay-baiting campaign against an opponent. But Brewer decided that the religious liberty bill passed by her state legislature went too far and did the right thing (for the wrong reasons) and vetoed the measure. A bill has to be pretty repulsive to be too strong for the likes of Brewer.
5. The Indiana law will become the rallying cry for the religious right in the 2016 campaign. Indiana will be the standard against which all the candidates will be measured. Every Republican candidate will have to genuflect before the Indiana law as the one that must be followed–or refuse to do so at his own peril. That means the antigay right will have a totem with which to charge back into battle, as it refights the culture war.
6. It’s a sign of the ongoing backlash against marriage equality. This may seem obvious, but the form that the backlash has taken was not a given. There were many different ways for opponents of marriage equality to respond, from resignation to protest. Instead, they chose to go a route where it became clear that they see discrimination as the only possible recourse and, even worse, as an acceptable option. For all the talk about knowing they are fighting a lost cause, religious conservatives are showing that they will pull out all the stops when it comes to opposing LGBT rights. If that means coming across as complete bigots, they don’t care. They have nothing left to lose. And under those circumstances, you can expect some pretty ugly fights to keep surfacing. Indiana is one example.
It won’t be the last.