Pence and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana

With Vice President Pence scheduled to speak at the Republican National Convention tonight, I’m reminded of how he tried to diminish the rights of the LGBT community in Indiana, in 2015, when he was Governor there. The Republicans forced the so called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” through the state assembly. Then in the face of widespread and growing opposition and anger, he hid behind the closed doors of his office to sign the bill.

(Edited from original publication April, 2015)

Indiana is in the spotlight at the moment, with the uproar over the recently passed, and ‘fixed’, Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

You may have heard of the Moral Mondays movement, which began several years ago in North Carolina. Like Indiana, North Carolina’s legislature and Governor’s office is under the control of one party. Rev. William Barber, who was president of the state’s NAACP organization, began to raise a moral voice against the repressive policies that were being enacted despite the objections of many. When the usual steps of letter writing, letters to the editor, and office visits proved to be futile, the movement began to use acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in the statehouse.

Eventually nearly 100,000 were arrested. The movement’s successes have resulted in similar organizations being formed in other states. The great thing about the Moral Mondays movement is that is refers to itself as a fusion movement, where many, diverse organizations and people set aside their differences, and concentrate on what they can agree to work on together.

We have just reached the one year anniversary of the Indiana Moral Mondays movement. Erin Polley, (Indianapolis’ AFSC staff person) has worked tirelessly to help build the movement here. About half a dozen members of North Meadow Circle of Friends, that I attend, are also involved. Rev. Barber joined us in October for the weekend of activities around the launch of Indiana Moral Mondays, which culminated in a one mile march through the city to the State Capitol building. Following is a video I made at that time.

We have formed working groups around our core issues and meet monthly.

This then is the first Indiana Legislative session since Indiana Moral Mondays (IMM) was formed. We’ve written many letters, had office visits, testified at committee hearings, and held rallies. Although we had a few successes, such as when the solar/renewable energy sector joined us to oppose a bad net-metering bill, more often we faced the same situation the caused Moral Mondays to be formed in North Carolina.

Then the Indiana version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act came before the General Assembly and we saw the legislative process at its worse. The bill advanced despite the unanimous objections, eloquently stated, by the minority party. As more people became aware of the bill, alarm spread, and negative reactions began to appear from the business community.

Despite growing opposition, the Governor signed the bill in a private ceremony.

The rest has played out in a very public way.

The Governor has a long, public history of opposition on LGBT issues. Opponents of marriage equality in Indiana are not happy that the state was recently forced to recognize same sex marriage by the courts. And three of the strongest conservative lobbyists for the RFRA were present during the private signing ceremony as seen in a widely published photo. The very widely held perception was that the bill was forced through the legislature and signed based on conservative opposition to the LGBT community. This perception was feed by remarks to that effect by the bill’s supporters.

It was especially disconcerting to me when the Governor, on several occasions, purposely tried to mislead us about the language in the bill. The problem with the Indiana RFRA is that it contains significantly different language and concepts from other states’ RFRAs, but he was saying it did not. If we are to have an informed political discourse, public officials need to be honest.

It has been so heartening to have witnessed the outpouring of support for the LGBT community, and against the RFRA. It was also amazing to witness the people of Indianapolis marching through the streets to protest

Those were major factors that resulted in the “fix”, i.e. adding language to the RFRA that appeared to prevent using it to discriminate again members of the LGBT community. But there is still bad language in the bill. And the thing that is different in regard to RFRA in Indiana is that Indiana does not have statewide protections of the civil rights of the LGBT community.

Recently Indiana Moral Mondays held an event on the grounds of the state Capitol where spokespersons from many different faiths in Indianapolis spoke of their opposition to the bill and calling for its repeal.

So here we have just the type of situation Moral Mondays was created to try to address. We continue to try to use lawful means to have the bill repealed. But we are aware that we may have reached the point where we need to employ the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience. Which brings up the issue of training, again. Fortunately, the Keystone Pledge of Resistance is one of the coalition partners of Indiana Moral Mondays, and all of the Action Leaders are also very involved with IMM. With the enthusiastic support of the Rainforest Action Network, we rewrote their training manual to work with the IMM audience. Several weeks ago we presented the first nonviolent civil disobedience training session for the Indiana Moral Mondays movement.

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