Daily Reporter staff writers
HANCOCK COUNTY — One business owner called it a license to discriminate; another countered it protects his religious beliefs.
Local opinions were strong but varied after Gov. Mike Pence on Thursday signed into law Senate Bill 101, also known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The legislation allows business owners to deny services to potential customers whose requests conflict with their religious beliefs.
Indiana is the first state among about a dozen, where such proposals have been introduced, to enact such a change this year. The measure would prohibit state and local laws that “substantially burden” the ability of people — including businesses and associations — to follow their religious beliefs.
The measure was supported by two of Hancock County’s three local lawmakers. Rep. Bob Cherry and Sen. Mike Crider, both R-Greenfield, voted in favor of the bill. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, who represents a small part of western Hancock County, voted against the bill.
John Cary, owner of Hey Café on State Street in downtown Greenfield, is one who has raised concerns the new law allows discrimination against homosexuals.
The debate is personal for Cary, who is openly gay and said he can’t imagine turning anyone away from his business.
His eatery welcomes all, he said, and he was dismayed by Pence’s decision Thursday.
“We fought for 100 years to have equal rights for everyone,” he said. “It set us back 100 years. … It’s asinine.”
Greenfield resident Ryan Scott, owner of Scott’s Custom Coatings, said he sees another side.
He said the law shields business owners from lawsuits that could arise if they deny services that conflict with their spiritual values.
Scott, a Christian, said he personally wouldn’t want to paint a sign, for example, that promotes a religion that conflicts with his beliefs.
“Everyone has their limits on what they are willing to do,” Scott said. “If someone wants a sign painted that I don’t agree with, I could always find a way to tell them nicely that they’ll have to find someone else to help them.”
Pence, a Republican, backed the bill as it moved through the Legislature and spoke at a Statehouse rally last month that drew hundreds of supporters. The governor signed the bill Thursday in a private ceremony.
Pence said in a statement the bill ensures “religious liberty is fully protected under Indiana law.”
“The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion, but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action,” he said.
“This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it,” he said. “For more than 20 years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation’s anti-discrimination laws, and it will not in Indiana.”
Reaction to the decision was swift and divided.
Supporters say discrimination concerns are overblown. They note the law is modeled after a federal religious freedom law Congress passed in 1993, and similar laws are on the books in 19 states.
Ron Stamps of Green Township said he has been in favor of the legislation from the start, adding his belief that the gay community has adopted the issue when the law’s scope is further-reaching.
Stamps said he can’t imagine there will be too many businesses that actually deny service, if for no other reason than it is not always immediately apparent someone holds different beliefs.
“It’s not like a gay couple is going to come into a restaurant and say loudly, ‘OK, we’re gay, and we’re going to eat here today’ and then be sent away,” he said. “With the exception of some wedding chapels, how are you really going to know who is who? I think the gay community has tried to make this into something that is not necessarily about them.”
Among those hoping for a veto was Cumberland resident Nancy Smith.
“This is a step back to the 1950s, and I just can’t believe that we are doing this,” she said. “I’m ashamed by this, in all honesty.”
Smith said she will take into consideration during the next election how her representatives voted on the bill. After the governor signed the bill, Cherry said there are a lot of misconceptions about the legislation. Indiana is joining at least 19 other states that have similar laws, he pointed out.
“It’s not about discrimination at all because we already have laws on the book for discrimination,” he said. “It really protects everybody.”
Other local representatives could not be reached for comment.