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Indiana clarifies religious freedom bill after backlash from Gen Con and others grows

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Photo by Sweet Alize/Flickr
Gen Con, one of the largest gaming conventions in the country, threatened to pull out of Indiana over a controversial bill. The event, which had a record attendance of 56,614 people last year, opposed Senate Bill 101, which critics say would have allowed businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples for religious reasons. The bill was initially passed by the state’s House of Representatives, which is controlled by Republicans.

Updated on 4-6-2015 by Christian Brazil Bautista: Added news that Governor Mike Pence and the Indiana House introduced an amendment that explicitly prohibits businesses from refusing service to anyone based on sexual orientation. Also added reaction from businesses.

“Was I expecting this kind of backlash? Heavens no,” said Indiana Governor Mike Pence.

However, the passage of the RFRA produced a backlash from companies, politicians and sports figures, something that took Indiana Governor Mike Pence by surprise. “Was I expecting this kind of backlash? Heavens no,” he told reporters. Pence, who was once seen as a possible Republican presidential candidate, has now become a cautionary tale. A similar law in Arkansas was sent back by Governor Hutchinson to legislators.

To appease critics of the law, Pence and the Republican-led Indiana House have introduced an amendment that explicitly prohibits businesses from refusing service to anyone on the basis of sexual orientation.

“Last weekend, I called upon the Indiana General Assembly to clarify that this new judicial standard would not create a license to discriminate or to deny services to any individual as its critics have alleged. I am grateful for the effort of legislators, business, and other community leaders who came together to forge this clarifying language in the law,” Pence wrote in a statement.

The reaction to the amendment has mostly been positive, and many businesses are working hard to rehabilitate the state’s image. Some have even issued statements on the issue, touting their record of being open and inclusive to all patrons. In downtown Indianapolis, people passed out “Indy welcomes all” t-shirts.

However, some argue that the law doesn’t go far enough to protect LGBT rights. Freedom Indiana, a religious liberty group, praised legislators for the amendment but called for more legal protections for gays and lesbians.

“It doesn’t change reality: Under Indiana law, it is still legal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. We won the battle today, but we haven’t yet won the war.” the organization said in a blog post.

If Gen Con relocates, it would mean an annual loss of $50 million for Indiana. According to the Indianapolis Star, Gen Con has a contract to hold the event in the state until 2020. A representative said that there are currently no plans to break the contract. However, Pence’s decision on the bill would “factor into future decisions.”

In a statement released to the Gen Con community following the bill’s passage, CEO Adrian Swartout, reassured attendees of his intention to ensure a safe and inclusive environment.

“Due to specific dialog with long-term partners in Indy, we believe that Gen Con attendees not only will receive the same great service and hospitality in 2015, but an even warmer response from the city,” Swartout wrote. “For as long as we stay in Indianapolis, we will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with this community, expand our efforts to bring more diversity to Gen Con, and welcome all.”

Swartout encourages attendees to keep voicing their opinions through social media, and especially to reach out if they have either positive or negative experiences with local businesses. Prior to the 2015 convention, they will create a email feedback form in order to have a clear picture of how things went to assess afterwards. Planning and bidding for a convention space begins five years prior to each event, so discussions about whether or not to leave Indianapolis for 2021 are currently underway.

Next page: A timeline of earlier events 

March 23: Gen Con argued that the Indiana law would allow businesses to discriminate against its attendees, and asked Gov. Pence to alter the law to protect minorities. “Gen Con proudly welcomes a diverse attendee base, made up of different ethnicities, cultures, beliefs, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, and socio-economic backgrounds,” Gen Con wrote in a letter to Indiana Governor Mike Pence.

“Legislation that could allow for refusal of service or discrimination against our attendees will have a direct negative impact on the state’s economy, and will factor into our decision-making on hosting the convention in the state of Indiana in future years. We ask that you please reconsider your support of SB 101,” the letter concluded.

Critics of the legislation say that the law effectively gives businesses a green light to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Some even argue that the proposal would let people pick and choose which laws to obey.

“This broadly-written bill, S.B. 101, will allow any individual or any business to claim that their religious beliefs give them the right to ignore any law,” the ACLU wrote in a petition page. “This poorly written bill is so broad it goes far beyond opening the floodgates to discrimination against LGBT people. This bill will allow individuals to claim that any number of laws – including but not limited to child welfare laws and nondiscrimination laws – don’t apply to them.”

March 26: Pence earlier stated that he would approve the bill. In a statement released after the House vote, he wrote, “I strongly support the legislation and applaud the members of the General Assembly for their work on this important issue. I look forward to signing the bill when it reaches my desk.” Pence followed through on that intent on the evening of March 26, signing S.B. 101 into law.

SB 101 #RFRA is now law. Want to thank @GovPenceIN for standing firm for #ReligiousFreedom

— Micah Clark (@AFAofIndiana) March 26, 2015

Previous updates:

Updated on 3-27-2015 by Will Fulton: On March 26, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed Senate Bill 101 into law. It will take effect on July 1. Gen Con’s organizers released a statement to the community, linked below.