by Kelley Calvert
– USA –
Hoosiers are a proud lot even if we cannot always explain where the term came from. Most people lose interest anyway, right after asking, “Where exactly is Indiana again?” They do not know that to be a Hoosier goes beyond geographical lines and penetrates the heart.
Being from Indiana means remembering when Bobby Knight threw a folding chair across the basketball court. It means knowing the song of crickets on a summer night like an Akashic record playing to the soul. It means refusing to eat corn on the cob anywhere else because of the certain disappointment. It means having a Larry Bird autographed basketball in your bedroom growing up. It means loving Mass Ave and quoting Kurt Vonnegut. It means a marching band of changing seasons swirling with the procession of the equinoxes.
And now it means SB101, Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act or RFRA.
Until last week, I felt no tension between two major aspects of my identity: being from Indiana and being gay. I came out in Indiana and generally enjoyed the support of family and friends. Over the years, I have told friends not in-the-know that Indianapolis is one of the country’s best-kept secrets, an up-and-coming gem. Over the years, I have also grown up, gotten married, and been blessed with the miracle of parenthood. Last year, my wife and I welcomed our daughter into the world after grappling with the many struggles of choosing to bring life into an imperfect, sometimes hostile world. One of my greatest fears is that someone would treat my daughter differently, or less than kindly, because she has two moms.
And last week, Indiana, my home state, legislated this fear into reality.
On March 26, 2015, the Indiana Senate approved SB 101, the “religious freedom” bill by a vote of 40-10. Governor Mike Pence signed the approved bill into law three days later. Supporters of the legislation argue that it will prevent the government from “substantially burdening” business owners’ freedom of religion without a “compelling interest.” Ultimately, however, the goal of the legislation was to allow business owners the right to deny service to the LGBT community. In 2014, Arizona’s Republican governor Jan Brewer vetoed a similar law, SB 1062, saying, “Religious liberty is a core American and Arizona value. So is non-discrimination.”
Indiana governor Mike Pence initially sidestepped the question of whether or not the law discriminates against gays and lesbians. Tellingly, the signing ceremony took placed behind closed doors with several anti-gay activists and lobbyists in attendance: Micah Clark, the head of the American Family Association of Indiana, who once told reporters that it would be better to be drowned than to allow youths to be gay, a “treatable, changeable” sickness; Curt Smith, who has publicly equated being gay to bestiality and adultery and who also helped write the bill; and Eric Miller, who designed a fear campaign to convince the public that pastors could be jailed if they preached against gays. Pence himself has publicly promoted gay conversion therapy and expressed antiquated views; in 2009, he opposed the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, falsely claiming that “individual pastors … could be charged or be subject to intimidation for simply expressing a Biblical worldview on the issue of homosexual behavior.”
Deflecting guilt for SB 101, on March 29, Pence told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “The question here is if there is a government action or a law that an individual believes impinges on their religious liberty, they have the opportunity to go to court, just as the Religious Freedom and Reformation Act that Bill Clinton signed allowed them.” Advocates of the bill assert that it mirrors the RFRA introduced by Bill Clinton in 1993, implying that since it was a liberal who put it into place, liberals should accept it. However, the contexts of 1993 and 2015 are radically different. The 1993 bill intended to address relatively uncontroversial concerns like allowing Muslim jail inmates to wear beards or permitting churches to feed homeless people in public parks. Indiana’s 2015 law has an altogether different purpose: combating the rise of LGBT rights.
More than “religious freedom,” this bill is about power. When the state’s same-sex marriage ban was ruled unconstitutional in June 2014, the state’s attorney general issued an emergency stay on same-sex marriages. By refusing to hear the appeal, the Supreme Court effectively upheld the lower court’s decision, legalizing gay marriage in October 2014. In response, Indiana legislators sprang into action to slow the tide of history with a bill intended to rob gays and lesbians of their dignity, of their hard-won civil rights victories in recent years.
Unfortunately, this legislation will harm working class people who hold jobs at places like Angie’s List and Salesforce, both major employers in Indianapolis who last week dismissed plans for future expansion due to SB 101. On March 26 Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff wrote from his Twitter account, “Today we are canceling all programs that require our customers/employees to travel to Indiana to face discrimination.” Major conventions like Gen Con have also threatened to take their business elsewhere. Meanwhile, athletic organizations like the NCAA, Nascar, and the Indianapolis Colts have voiced their discontent about the passage of this bill. In total, the Center for American Progress estimates that the bill could cost Indiana $256.4 million dollars over the next six years.
Immediately following the Indiana Senate’s approval of RFRA, the executive director of the ACLU of Indiana noted the economic and moral impacts of SB101 with this statement: “We are deeply disappointed that the governor and state lawmakers have been tone-deaf to the cries of legions of Hoosiers – including businesses, convention leaders, faith communities, and more than 10,000 people who signed petitions against the bill – who say they don’t want this harmful legislation to impair the reputation of our state and harm our ability to attract the best and brightest to Indiana.” By Thursday morning, April 2, Indiana’s Republican leaders had announced proposed changes to RFRA that they claim would not discriminate against the LGBTQ community in Indiana and by that evening Governor Pence had signed the revised law stating, “There will be some who think this legislation goes too far and some who think it does not go far enough, but as governor I must always put the interest of our state first and ask myself every day, ‘What is best for Indiana?’ I believe resolving this controversy and making clear that every person feels welcome and respected in our state is best for Indiana.”
Perhaps Governor Pence’s biggest mistake in this mess is his and other Republican lawmakers’ arrogance. The demographics of the Indiana Senate itself—largely white, largely male, largely Baby Boomer—no longer reflect the values of Indiana or the United States of America. Of 50 members, 46 are white and 4 are black; 40 are male and 10 are female; 36 are over the age of fifty and 21 over the age of 60. With 40 Republicans and 10 Democrats, the Senate is emblematic of Indiana’s low voter turnout rather than a representative authority. Indiana had the lowest voter turnout in the country in the 2014 midterm elections.
Surrounded by like minds, Indiana lawmakers and the governor seem to have forgotten what makes a Hoosier, that unaffected small-town kindness, unpretentious common sense, and dedication to honesty and goodness. Maybe it has to do with hanging in the balance of a giant landmass, but there is something in the Hoosier constitution that detests unfairness. That is where this legislation misses its mark. By singling out the easiest target on the playground to bully, the Indiana legislature created an internal rebellion and a national uproar. It is not about the media, and it is not about religion. It is about politics, hurtful politics that have the potential to harm my family and millions of Americans like us. The Hoosier spirit knows intuitively: that is just not right.
About the Author: Kelley Calvert is an Assistant Professor of English for Academic and Professional Purposes and the director of the Graduate Writing Center (GWC) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. She has worked as a professional writing tutor at California State University Monterey Bay, providing workshops for students in English conversation skills, grammar, and composition. She is also a professional freelance editor and writer. Prior to MIIS, she served as a professor of English for Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa, and as an AmeriCorps writing and technology tutor for inner city youths in the Washington, D.C. area. Her teaching experiences include work with undergraduate and graduate students, community college students, and children.