Will Indiana’s religious freedom law even matter?

Opinion by Vihan Lakshman
March 29, 2015, 8:56 p.m.

The famous philosopher Groucho Marx once declared, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

Mr. Marx’s wise words have inspired scores of thinkers, but — with the recent swarm of concern that the state of Indiana will now facilitate the discrimination of gays and lesbians — perhaps he should have uttered the closely related, but nonetheless non-trivial, corollary: “I refuse to join any club that would not have me as a member.”

On Thursday, Indiana governor Mike Pence signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill intended to “support the freedom of religion for every Hoosier of every faith.” With the goal of protecting citizens from engaging in actions that violate their religious beliefs from lawsuits, the act would allow, for instance, businesses to refuse service at same-sex marriage ceremonies, police officers to excuse themselves from working in mosques or restaurant owners and landlords to refuse service on the basis of faith.

But, in all likelihood, the consequences of this law will never see the light of day because it lacks support in almost every conceivable direction, from LGBT activists to business-friendly politicians — and that is exactly why the Religious Freedom Act does matter. The vehement opposition toward the possibility of discrimination we have seen speaks considerably to the nationwide attitude towards LGBT rights and will stand as a major societal and political moment in the future.

In other words, the reverse Groucho Marx argument (“If you don’t want me in your club, why would I want to be in your club?”) has had an effect. In the span of a few days, we have already seen numerous calls to boycott Indiana that could send economic shockwaves throughout the state.

Within hours of Gov. Pence’s decision to sign the law, for example, Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff declared that the company would retract operations in Indiana. Several other local business leaders, including the NCAA, have expressed concern over the bill’s potential impact on their business.

When the NCAA, of all organizations, assumes the position of moral superiority in a debate, there is no hope of salvation for the Religious Freedom Act. Ultimately, the state of Indiana could lose big. Businesses that invoke the law would be instantly labeled as bigoted and suffer even more in the form of boycotts and scrutiny. Many companies have also expressed concern that the law will prevent them from hiring and retaining employees. Under these serious consequences, will we see the law even come into play?

The power of individuals interested in social issues to influence corporate decisions cannot be ignored. Last year, Brendan Eich, the CEO of Mozilla and a donor to Proposition 8, resigned from his position and left the company after many activists called for a boycott. And Eich faced this tremendous — arguably excessive — scrutiny over a personal decision removed from his actual day-to-day activities on the job. The amount of criticism would only intensify for a business deliberately electing to deny service to a Muslim, Jewish or gay client. Amidst the scrutiny, the law looks to be anything but business-friendly and may irk an even broader base.

In the end, Indiana’s law ruffles feathers on more than just one wing. But with all of the potential pressure on Indiana businesses, will it actually matter?

Furthermore, will the bill even hold up in court? In defending the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which outlawed, in part, discrimination on the basis of race — the Supreme Court has stipulated that services such as restaurants or floral shops are not in the same class of private property as, for example, a residence, because they are inherently in the business of interacting with the public.

While some libertarian thinkers, including Sen. Rand Paul, have presented strong arguments that forcing businesses to serve particular customers violates the sanctity of private property, the high court has a strong precedent of upholding the authority of the Civil Rights Act, which further places the Indiana bill in hot water.

Gov. Pence’s intentions in signing are probably sincere, but the law will likely have little impact — if it even manages to dodge several Constitutional hurdles. For better or for worse, most beliefs and opinions get heavily scrutinized in today’s age of social media. The pressure mounting on the state of Indiana in just two days suggests that very few businesses will actually look to utilize this law to refuse services. And when Reggie Miller, Mr. Indiana himself, sharply condemns the law, what hope is there of salvaging support for the bill?

In the end, the Indiana religious freedom law does matter precisely because it will likely have limited future consequences. The volume and intensity of reactions in Indiana and across the country provides a strong barometer on the climate against discrimination and, especially, increasing passionate sentiments in favor of gay rights. The Religious Freedom Act is an extremely significant law from both a legal and a societal standpoint because it does strongly parallel the rules of the Jim Crow era and carries the debate of individual liberty versus discrimination into a broader context.

And, make no mistake, the law will have a long-term legacy, even if it is not a practical one. The substantial power of passionate citizens to share their voices and impact political discourse has established itself as a powerful, 21st century hammer for shaping change, a power that could also be potentially dangerous as a weapon of misinformation and extreme political correctness.

As we go deeper into the age of rapid reaction, Indiana will inevitably be a part of that story, regardless of the future of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Vihan Lakshman's journey at The Stanford Daily came full-circle as he began his career as a football beat writer and now closes his time on The Farm in the same role. In between, he has served as an Opinions columnist and desk editor, a beat writer for Stanford baseball, and as a member of The Daily's Editorial Board. Vihan completed his undergraduate degree in Mathematical and Computational Science in 2016, and is currently pursuing a master's in Computational Mathematics. He also worked as a color commentator on KZSU football broadcasts during the 2015 season. To contact him, please send an email to vihan 'at' stanford.edu

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