A controversial religious freedom bill designed to allow private business owners to refuse to provide services to LGBT members passed the Indiana House by a 63-31 vote Monday, while Gov. Mike Pence expressed his plan to sign it into law next week.
Twenty-six Democrats and 5 Republicans refused to back the new law in a mostly-Republican Indiana House. Last month, Indiana Senate passed a similar version of the bill and plans to concur with the House version of the law in the next few days.
According to Senate Bill 101, state and local authorities are no longer allowed to “substantially burden” individuals’ religious freedom unless officials prove they have a compelling interest to act that way.
Backers of the bill say that the new law would protect religious people from government intrusion and allow them to freely express their religious beliefs. They also hope that small businesses wouldn’t be forced to close down whenever they refuse to cater for same-sex couples like it was the case with an Oregon bakery.
“It’s important that we allow our citizens to hold religious beliefs, maybe even those we might be appalled by, and to be able to express those,”
said Tom Washburne, one of the Republicans who voted for the law.
But, opponents criticize the law as an open window to discrimination against the LGBT community. Minority leaders complained that the law will also deem homosexuals as second rate citizens since it allows private businesses to refuse to serve them.
Social conservatives strongly lobbied for the new law across the state after the recent court rulings that legalized same-sex marriages. The new bill is based on a 22-year old piece of regulation called the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act. The same act allowed Indiana corporations to refuse to cover contraceptives for their female employees under Obamacare due to religious objections.
Currently, there are 19 states that passed similar religious freedom laws, while several others are planning to do so.
But gay rights advocacy groups, Cummins, Salesforce, and Eskenazi Health criticized the move for encouraging discrimination and hurt Indiana’s reputation as a tolerant state.
Last week, the House issued an exemption that protects state employers from suits filed by their employees under the new legislation. Yet, law experts didn’t reach a consensus on the new law’s effects. Religious leaders also displayed contrasting opinions on the issue.
On Monday, both sides brought arguments from the Bible to back their opinions. Rep. Bruce Borders argued that the scripture’s command to “do all things as unto the Lord” implies that Christians ought to get protection not only in their church, but also at their workplaces. Mr. Borders also mentioned an anesthesiologist who refused to serve a patient that was going to have an abortion citing religious belief.
On the other hand, bill opponents cited the scriptures for their own purposes by saying that Jesus Christ had dinner with prostitutes and didn’t condemn them or any other sinner.
Freedom Indiana, a group that opposes the measure, expressed its hope that the Indiana governor won’t sign the “dangerous bill” into law. The group cited Arizona governor who vetoed a similar bill in 2014.