Faith leaders question bill’s future

HANCOCK COUNTY — As state legislators work to clarify the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act, local members of the faith community expressed concerns about where the bill is headed.

Both opponents and supporters worry about how any clari-fications might affect the bill’s intention.

Senate Bill 101, also known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, prohibits state laws that “substantially burden” a person’s ability to follow his or her religious beliefs.

The definition of “person” includes religious institutions, businesses and associations.

When Gov. Mike Pence signed the bill into law Thursday, the move created an immediate uproar. Supporters say that’s because the law is widely misunderstood.

Opponents counter it opens the door to discriminate against the gay community.

Businesses and organizations nationwide have criticized the legislation and threatened to pull out of business deals and appearance Sunday but did not directly answer questions about whether it allowed discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Republican legislative leaders and supporters have said the bill doesn’t allow for discrimination.

The Rev. Larry Gember, pastor of St. James Lutheran Church in Greenfield, participated in rallies supporting the bill and was one of a select few present when Pence signed it into law. He said that if he believed the bill allowed for discrimination he never would have supported it.

It’s not a sword, he said. Instead, it’s a shield from government intrusion.

“People have made a big deal out of nothing,” he said. “People assume it’s some backhanded way to get back at the LGBT community. That’s not the case.”

And he doesn’t want lawmakers to make any changes that would weaken it.

“All we’re trying to do is make sure we’re not discriminated against,” he said of the religious community.

The Rev. Larry Fannin, pastor of Evangel Christian Church in Greenfield, said he doesn’t feel the law was necessary to begin with.

“It really shouldn’t be needed if we’re implementing the Constitution,” he said. “The Constitution does protect us against the state interfering with religion.”

The law doesn’t need clarification because it provides religious protection for everyone, he said.

The Rev. Travis Hacker, minister at New Palestine Christian Church, said the bill is complicated. He said he fears it opens the door to allow for discrimination and amending the bill won’t do much to change that.

He said he supports religious freedom but said the law could be problematic.

“I think it’s very important to have the religious freedoms and the right for businesses owners to exercise religion as they see fit,” Hacker said. “The problem with it is how it opens the door to treatment that’s reflective of Jim Crow laws.”

Perhaps more problematic than the bill’s language is its timing, said Hacker, whose church is a Disciples of Christ congregation.

The law comes a year after Republican Hoosier lawmakers pushed for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. That effort ultimately failed.

“I think the reasons the bill is being put forward is in bad taste,” he said. “It’s a political move more than a religious move.”

Before Pence signed the bill, groups including the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Gen Con threatened to move their conventions and meetings out of Indianapolis.

The bill passed through the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature, with no Democratic lawmakers supporting and a handful of Republicans voting against it, including Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, who represents a small portion of western Hancock County.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Indiana Code 34-13-9

Chapter 9: Religious Freedom Restoration

Sec. 1. This chapter applies to all governmental entity statutes, ordinances, resolutions, executive or administrative orders, regulations, customs, and usages, including the implementation or application thereof, regardless of whether they were enacted, adopted, or initiated before, on, or after July 1, 2015.

Sec. 2. A governmental entity statute, ordinance, resolution, executive or administrative order, regulation, custom, or usage may not be construed to be exempt from the application of this chapter unless a state statute expressly exempts the statute, ordinance, resolution, executive or administrative order, regulation, custom, or usage from the application of this chapter by citation to this chapter.

Sec. 3. (a) The following definitions apply throughout this section:

(1) “Establishment Clause” refers to the part of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of the State of Indiana prohibiting laws respecting the establishment of religion.

(2) “Granting,” used with respect to government funding, benefits, or exemptions, does not include the denial of government funding, benefits, or exemptions.

(b) This chapter may not be construed to affect, interpret, or in any way address the Establishment Clause.

(c) Granting government funding, benefits or exemptions to the extent permissible under the Establishment Clause, does not constitute a violation of this chapter.

Sec. 4. As used in this chapter, “demonstrates” means meets the burdens of going forward with the evidence and of persuasion.

Sec. 5. As used in this chapter, “exercise of religion” includes any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.

Sec. 6. As used in this chapter, “governmental entity” includes the whole or any part of a branch, department, agency, instrumentality, official, or other individual or entity acting under color of law of any of the following:

(1) State government.

(2) A political subdivision (as defined in IC 36-1-2-13).

(3) An instrumentality of a governmental entity described in subdivision (1) or (2), including a state educational institution, a body politic, a body corporate and politic, or any other similar entity established by law.

Sec. 7. As used in this chapter, “person” includes the following:

(1) An individual.

(2) An organization, a religious society, a church, a body of communicants, or a group organized and operated primarily for religious purposes.

(3) A partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, a company, a firm, a society, a joint-stock company, an unincorporated association, or another entity that:

(A) may sue and be sued; and

(B) exercises practices that are compelled or limited by a system of religious belief held by:

(i) an individual; or

(ii) the individuals; who have control and substantial ownership of the entity, regardless of whether the entity is organized and operated for profit or nonprofit purposes.

Sec. 8. (a) Except as provided in subsection (b), a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.

(b) A governmental entity may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if the governmental entity demonstrates that application of the burden to the person: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

Sec. 9. A person whose exercise of religion has been substantially burdened, or is likely to be substantially burdened, by a violation of this chapter may assert the violation or impending violation as a claim or defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding, regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding. If the relevant governmental entity is not a party to the proceeding, the governmental entity has an unconditional right to intervene in order to respond to the person’s invocation of this chapter.

Sec. 10. (a) If a court or other tribunal in which a violation of this chapter is asserted in conformity with section 9 of this chapter determines that:

(1) the person’s exercise of religion has been substantially burdened, or is likely to be substantially burdened; and

(2) the governmental entity imposing the burden has not demonstrated that application of the burden to the person:

(A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and

(B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest; the court or other tribunal shall allow a defense against any party and shall grant appropriate relief against the governmental entity.

(b) Relief against the governmental entity may include any of the following:

(1) Declaratory relief or an injunction or mandate that prevents, restrains, corrects, or abates the violation of this chapter.

(2) Compensatory damages.

(c) In the appropriate case, the court or other tribunal also may award all or part of the costs of litigation, including reasonable attorney’s fees, to a person that prevails against the governmental entity under this chapter.

Sec. 11. This chapter is not intended to, and shall not be construed or interpreted to, create a claim or private cause of action against any private employer by any applicant, employee, or former employee.

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Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or