RFRA: Why the 'religious freedom law' signed by Mike Pence was so controversial
In the spring of 2015, Indiana lawmakers passed a religious freedom law that focused a white-hot spotlight on the state.
RFRA, passed by a Republican-majority legislature, was lauded by religious conservatives. But many others, including the LGBTQ and business communities, said it made it OK to discriminate and would drive companies away from Indiana.
It also focused attention on the then-little-known Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who is now the vice president.
Three years later, here's a closer look at why RFRA was so controversial.
What does RFRA stand for?
Senate Bill 101, which was titled the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was passed by the Indiana General Assembly by a 40-10 vote and on March 26, 2015, Pence signed it into law during a closed-door ceremony while surrounding by religious leaders and members of the Christian right. It was to go into effect on July 1, 2015.
The gist of the law: Government cannot infringe on a person's ability to practice his or her religion unless the government can prove it has a compelling reason for doing so. If the government can show that, the law says, then it must also choose the least restrictive way to achieve its goal.
Pence sent a tweet soon afterward, saying, "I signed SEA 101 today to ensure religious liberty is fully protected under IN law."
What happened after RFRA was signed?
Criticism over the new law was nearly immediate on social media and in headlines around the nation and world. Members of the gay and lesbian community said they feared that it would allow Indiana businesses to deny services to them.
Pence initially dug in his heels, saying, "I stand by this law," during a controversial interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos on March 29, 2015. Pence was roundly criticized, however, when Stephanopoulos asked him six times whether the new law would allow a business to discriminate against gay couples — and Pence ducked the question six times.
Business and tourism leaders in Indiana also decried the impact of the new law, saying it had a disastrous effect on the state's economy, and they worked closely with Republican legislators on a quick fix to the law.
The new law rallied citizens — on both sides of the issue. Thousands of Hoosiers gathered in a protest rally in Downtown Indianapolis to call for a new state law to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and nearly a dozen LGBTQ and civil-rights groups sent an open letter to Pence asking him to fix RFRA.
But the Indiana Pastors Alliance sent their own letter to the governor, saying they felt "deeply betrayed" by the fix and also held a rally inside the Statehouse attended by dozens who opposed a repeal or fix of the law.
In response, the IndyStar's editorial board published a full-page front-page editorial in the wake of the RFRA blowback with the headline "Fix this now." The campaign said, "only bold action … will be enough to reverse the damage" and it called for passage of a state human rights law to protect all Hoosiers from discrimination.
Who opposed the law?
It met opposition from a diverse group of people and organizations, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, Angie's List co-founder Bill Oesterle, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Gen Con and the Disciples of Christ.
Business leaders, such as Apple CEO Tim Cook, Eli Lilly and Co. CEO John Lechleiter, and Angie's List Co-founder and CEO Bill Oesterle took Indiana lawmakers to task and said RFRA would hurt their ability to recruit and retain world-class talent. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff led Twitter opposition to the law and threatened that the giant tech company would boycott the state. Oesterle blamed his cancellation of a planned $40 million headquarters expansion of his Indianapolis-based online ratings company on RFRA.
Celebrities, including pop star Rihanna, who was performing at a concert on April 4, 2015, at White River State Park in Indianapolis, also spat fiery words at Indiana and its leaders over the passage of RFRA.
What was the RFRA fix all about?
To stem the criticism, lndiana lawmakers quickly passed an amendment intended to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination, which was signed into law on April 2, 2015.
Pence — who describes himself as "a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order" — had come under intense pressure from moderate Republicans, as well as the state's business community to act in the face of a growing public relations crisis. He called for a change to the RFRA law to make it clear that business owners will not be allowed to discriminate when providing services.
Lawmakers fell short of repealing RFRA, but they did add the fix to prevent RFRA from being used to supersede local and state civil rights laws.
How did the right react to the RFRA fix?
Pence not only faced criticism for passage of the initial law, but religious conservatives took him to task for his role in passage of the amendment in the wake of widespread boycott threats facing the state.
His support from the right soon evaporated, according to an Associated Press analysis of more than 1,400 pages of documents obtained under Indiana's public records law, which included emails and letters from angry constituents.
One such email sent March 31 to Pence's office read: "Indiana is fronted by a coward." "I just watched your boss throw the ENTIRE Christian population in America under the Left's Gay Extortion Bus," read another email.
What was the fallout for Hoosiers?
Several organizations, including Gen Con and the Disciples of Christ, softened their positions and went ahead with planned conventions in Indianapolis after the outcry caused by RFRA opposition.
However, Visit Indy, an Indianapolis tourism group, said RFRA caused the city to lose up to 12 conventions and $60 million in business.
A public-records request by IndyStar revealed in March 2016, a year after the passage of RFRA, that Pence had spent $365,000 of taxpayers' money to a global public relations firm called Porter Novelli to develop a strategy to repair the damage to the state's reputation from the religious freedom law.
However, two conservative lobbying groups, the Indiana Family Institute and the American Family Association of Indiana, filed a lawsuit in December 2015 challenging local nondiscrimination ordinances in Indianapolis and Carmel that protect sexual orientation and gender identity — saying those laws strip the groups of their religious freedom. They also contended that the RFRA fix, which upholds such laws from religious objections, is unconstitutional.
The Indiana Court of Appeals declined in 2017 to hear the appeal of four cities who were opposed to a lower court's ruling that let the conservative groups' lawsuit proceed.
Call IndyStar digital producer Dwight Adams at (317) 444-6532. Follow him on Twitter: @hdwightadams.