In March, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a law being called the “Religious Freedom Bill” that, in addition to other actions, will allow business owners in the state the option to discriminate on grounds of sexual identity. More specifically, the intention of the bill is to allow these owners to adhere to religious beliefs, even if those beliefs include refusing service to members of the LGBT community.
Unbelievably, and frighteningly, the bill has received support from a number of the most prominent politicians in the Republican party. A recent article in ABC News cited multiple GOP presidential hopefuls coming out in support of the bill, including former Florida governor (and likely Republican nomination frontrunner) Jeb Bush, Sen. Rick Santorum, and Sen. Ted Cruz, the only one of the three to have officially announced a bid for the presidency. Santorum went as far as to say “I stand with (Mike Pence) in defense of religious liberty and real tolerance.” That’s right—he used the words “real tolerance” in supporting a bill that allows the denial of service based on sexual preferences.
Of course, there’s also been a great deal of backlash. Politicians and television personalities around the country have been calling for a repeal of the bill, or in some cases even a boycott of Indiana. Former MSNBC and current ESPN show host Keith Olbermann went as far as calling on the NCAA to move the college basketball Final Four away from Indianapolis, where it’s currently slated to take place at Lucas Oil Stadium. But the most noteworthy criticism thus far probably came from Apple CEO Tim Cook, who last year became the first openly gay CEO of a major tech company.
Quoted in Mashable and speaking out on the Indiana bill and similar laws in Arkansas, Cook said, “these bills rationalize injustice by pretending to defend something many of us hold dear,” referring to the idea that outright discrimination is being cloaked by promises of the defense of religious freedom. But unlike many talking heads hurling criticism at the law, Cook was careful to contextualize his own critique, acknowledging that the bills are interrupting an otherwise progressive period in American history with regard to social tolerance. Of the bills, he also said, “they go against the very principles our nation was founded on, and they have the potential to undo decades of progress toward greater equality….”
But is Tim Cook right? A bill like this can be so frustrating for those advocating for equal rights, particularly regarding the LGBT community, that it often seems as if American social tolerance operates on a one step forward, two steps back cycle. To put recent events in this regard in perspective, this guide to LGBT issues offers a concise outline of progressive moves toward LGBT equality in recent years. The page makes note of a number of specific movements toward marriage equality that have taken place in 2013 and 2014—most notably the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 to rule it unconstitutional for any state to refuse to recognize a same-sex marriage. In this context, it appears that Cook has a point that extends beyond hopeful optimism. There has been significant progress toward LGBT equality in recent years, and it’s for this reason that Indiana’s new bill seems so glaringly backwards to many of us.
As for whether or not the bill will stand, that appears to be up for debate at the moment. Governor Pence has expressed shock at the backlash to the bill signing. Given some of his comments in a recent Huffington Post article, it appears he may be genuinely confused as to the impact of the law. Pence claims to abhor discrimination—not that any modern politician would publicly admit anything different—and seems to have a poor interpretation of his own bill. And yet, he has also said he would not enact any additional legislation specifically to protect LGBT individuals from discrimination.
Ultimately, the sheer volume of the backlash provides some hope that this bill will be scrapped, altered, or reversed in some way. This is the benefit of American government: when issues spark loud enough conversations, politicians are forced to listen. Let us hope, moving forward, that Pence will listen as well.