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Backlash Grows Against Indiana 'Religious Freedom' Act

Tech companies, Indiana business leaders and the NCAA raise concerns about discrimination.


You won’t find warnings on the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, the rising tide of violence in Honduras or the terrorist threat in Sydney, Australia, on travel advice site Gogobot. It leaves that to the U.S. State Department and other official agencies.

But vacationers considering a trip to Indiana will find a stark message at the top of Gogobot’s Indiana state and city pages warning visitors of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics fear may lead to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The site, which delivers recommendations tailored to discrete interest groups or “tribes,” counts some 30,000 gays, lesbians and transgender people among its 16 million users.

“If somebody used Gogobot to research a trip to Indiana and ended up getting turned away at a restaurant or hotel, we thought that would be important for our travelers to know,” said Chief Executive Travis Katz, noting there’s no travel advisory for this kind of information. “Given that’s what our site’s about, I felt it was a really natural response for us.”

Gogobot is the latest in a procession of technology companies to protest the bill, signed into law by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, which provides legal backing for parties arguing against government action that “substantially” burdens the exercise of religion. Prominent tech leaders, including Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook, CEO Marc Benioff and Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, have publicly slammed the law. Twitter joined in the condemnation on Monday.

Benioff, whose company owns Indianapolis-based ExactTarget, led the charge last week by announcing he would cancel an annual conference and all other marketing events held in Indianapolis. Others quickly followed. Storage and IT company EMC said it would withdraw from the IndyBigData conference scheduled for May 7 at the Indianapolis Convention Center. Two EMC subsidiaries, Pivotal and Isilon, which are listed as sponsors, also scrapped plans to participate in the conference, as did software giant Oracle and Hortonworks.

“We had three booths there, and we’re pulling everything,” EMC President Jeremy Burton said in an interview with Re/code on Monday. “I think Benioff deserves the credit for calling attention to this, and when I circulated info about this law to our executive team, we decided we wanted to find a way to add our voice to this.”

Cloudera, a big-data software company backed by Intel, has also pulled out of the conference. Other sponsors include Amazon Web Services.

Indiana companies, including business ratings site Angie’s List and the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, have taken a public stand against the law. Angie’s List announced Saturday it would put a planned expansion on hold. A spokesperson for the drug company said it is meeting today with others in the business community.

Local backlash

Prominent members of Indiana’s business community reacted swiftly to the new legislation, calling on Pence, the president of the state Senate and the speaker of the House to take action to ensure that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is not used to sanction or encourage discrimination against anyone.

“All of our companies seek to promote fair, diverse and inclusive workplaces. Our employees must not feel unwelcome in the place where they work and live,” wrote the business leaders Monday. “As we seek to attract and retain great talent from Indiana and around the world, it is critical that we make it clear that Indiana is the welcoming state we all believe it to be.”

The group, which includes the chief executives of Lilly, Anthem, Dow AgroSciences, Emmis Communications and Roche Diagnostics, called on the legislators to move swiftly.

“By immediately enacting new legislation that makes it clear that neither the Religious Freedom Restoration Act nor any other Indiana law can be used to justify discrimination based upon sexual orientation or gender identity, our state’s elected leaders can provide the reassurance … that is needed at this critical moment,” wrote the business leaders.

Meanwhile, a petition is circulating that calls on the NCAA, the governing body for college athletics, to relocate its Indiana headquarters. The initiative, which has gathered nearly 60,000 signatures, comes as the high-profile Final Four college basketball tournament arrives April 4 in Indianapolis.

“We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week’s Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a statement. “Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.”

In an interview Monday on ESPNU, Emmert said, “We, the NCAA, have to sit down and say all right, if this environment remains the way it is, what does that mean for us going forward? We hold lots and lots of events here. We’re going to have our national convention here. Our offices are here. We have to say, what do we do if this law goes into effect in July, and what’s our relationship with the state of Indiana going to be?”

Indiana is not alone in enacting such legislation, even as the nation’s highest court prepares to consider the gay marriage question.

Sixteen states have introduced legislation this year to either enact a Religious Freedom Restoration Act or amend similar legislation already on the books, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Last week Indiana became the 20th state to currently have such a law, which are (sometimes loosely) modeled on a 1993 federal law of the same name.

Not all legislation is created equal

Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act isn’t like most of the other similar state laws, however, because it applies to disputes between private citizens, not just disputes between a person and a government. Basically, the legislation would make it easier for businesses to win if they were sued for refusing to serve members of the LGBT community based on religious beliefs.

One South Bend, Indiana, trial attorney wrote a quick analysis of the law, saying it “certainly is trying to push the envelope on the reach of free exercise of religion.”

In a February 27 letter to state lawmakers, a group of 30 law professors also analyzed the plan, and wrote that the law “will more likely create confusion, conflict and a wave of litigation that will threaten the clarity of religious liberty rights in Indiana while undermining the state’s ability to enforce other compelling interests.”

Supporters of the law say that its intent has been misinterpreted and it is not a license to discriminate against the gay community. Pence echoed that sentiment on ABC News over the weekend, saying he was open to legislation that clarified the bill’s intent, but “we’re not going to change the law.”

“This bill is not about discrimination,” Pence said after signing the bill last week, “and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it.”

The Indiana law is similar to legislation that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed last year after an uproar by civil rights groups, businesses and some politicians and residents who were concerned about how it might impact the state, including its chances of hosting another Super Bowl.

The Arkansas Senate passed similar legislation to Indiana’s last Friday, which could soon head to Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s desk. Georgia legislators have been considering a related “religious liberty” bill, but those plans were on hold as of Monday morning after a hearing on the legislation was canceled. Georgia’s legislative session ends Thursday.

Indiana’s Republican legislative leaders said Monday they’re working to add language to the state law to make it clear that it doesn’t allow discrimination against gays and lesbians, while Democrats countered that a full repeal is the only way to stem the widespread criticism, the Associated Press reported.

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