Dear Indiana, You Need To Amend Your Religious Freedom Bill
Here's the thing, Indiana: I don't trust you.
I want to trust you. I really do. I enjoy Indianapolis. St. Elmo's is delicious. The JW Marriott is cool. Sure, I wish you had better independent coffee shops downtown, but Starbucks is OK every so often.
But even though I like you, my initial reaction, after reading about the "religious freedom" bill you passed on Thursday, was to want to immediately write that the NCAA should switch locations for next year's women's Final Four, that the NFL should move its annual combine to another dome, that all the sporting events -- and the accompanying tourism dollars -- should go elsewhere. (You're hosting this weekend's men's Final Four, too, but it's a little late to switch locations.)
But that's not exactly how I feel anymore.
I did some reading -- lots of reading. And this thing isn't so black and white. (Few things ever are, right?)
Opponents of the bill believe religious freedom already exists, and that this bill is simply legalized discrimination -- that businesses can now refuse service to members of the LGBT community. Supporters of the bill believe it's been mischaracterized; that it provides needed protection for people of faith. Governor Mike Pence emphasized that on Sunday as he made the media rounds defending the bill.
But while the bill may not lead to discrimination against LGBT people, you certainly must recognize that it creates space allowing for such discrimination. So, Indiana, you've passed a measure that opens room for discrimination, but contend that's just an unintended consequence -- that the space won't be exploited. Your governor even said that if he believed the bill legalized discrimination, he never would have signed it.
But I can't just take your word for it, Indiana.
If you contend you're more like Illinois and Connecticut (two other states with "religious freedom" bills) than you are like Alabama and Louisiana -- prove it.
Turns out that 19 other states have some form of a "religious freedom" bill, including the aforementioned two: Connecticut and Illinois. That's surprising, considering that nobody is calling for the NCAA or NFL to boycott holding events in Chicago or Hartford. But do you want to know one reason why? Because the potential discriminatory nature of the "religious freedom" bills in those states is counteracted by the statewide policies protecting LGBT people from discrimination.
These anti-discrimination policies are not county-by-county. They're not just government employment protection. They are sweeping measures that include public and private employment, public expression and interactions while receiving goods and services.
You, Indiana, have no such sweeping anti-discrimination policy. (Neither does Alabama or Louisiana.) So maybe you can understand why I'm wary when defenders of your "religious freedom" bill claim it has nothing to do with legalizing discrimination against LGBT people. Because your state hasn't made discriminating against LGBT people illegal.
But even though I'm skeptical of your motives, I'm not convinced that pulling next year's women's Final Four from Indy is the most impactful solution. In fact, this year's women's Final Four is in Tampa, Florida, in a state that also has a "religious freedom" bill, in a state also without extensive protections for LGBT people.
Truth is, too few people are aware of how widespread this "religious freedom" bill has become.
Now we are. (BTW, thank you for that!) Intolerance -- or, in this case, a policy that might enable intolerance -- will no longer be quietly accepted, even in states where history suggests the battle will likely be lost. (But that's not you, right, Indiana?)
Keeping big-time sporting events in Indianapolis also gives your local businesses an opportunity to deliberately make clear that they're welcoming. In fact, the "We Serve Everyone" campaign is already red-hot.
So instead of calling for the NCAA to take its business elsewhere, how about this: Back up your claims that this "religious freedom" bill isn't meant to legalize discrimination against LGBT people. I do see how this bill, in its truest spirit -- e.g., protecting a Muslim prisoner's right to grow a beard even though prison code might demand he be clean-shaven -- could have value, if that's truly how it will be implemented. But even so, concrete protections should exist for LGBT people who, in the most twisted application of this bill, could be discriminated against.
(I hope you can appreciate how I'm working to balance naivete with cynicism; overdosing on either feels like a dead end and we're better than that.)
This is not complicated. Pass legislation that makes it illegal to discriminate against LGBT people. You can't just "clarify the language" -- as you've now said you'll try to do. You must take a stronger stand: Use this moment as an opportunity to prove you're inclusive.
Here, let's use a quick analogy to make this even clearer.
Let's say some people come into a room and throw open a window for some fresh air. The others in the room think the move unnecessary, but they're kind of caught; the window is open now. So they say, "I get that you wanted some fresh air, but now we're worried because all kinds of things can get through that open space: rain, bugs -- even worse. But good news, we found a compromise: You can just put in a screen!"
Pretty straightforward, yes?
So you can imagine, Indiana, that if you don't add the screen, it might start to seem like the point of opening the window wasn't actually to let in fresh air.
But rather to let in all those other things.
I know hundreds of women's basketball coaches and players, as well as thousands of fans, who are looking forward to the famous shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo's. So let's make this happen.
And if this is too much to ask, then that will be disappointing. But we'll find a different plan, trust me.
There are plenty of other welcoming, inclusive cities in which to watch some hoops and spend some money.