Formerly controversial Indiana religious law shakes bad image as it is used for good
Last year, as governor of Indiana, GOP running mate Mike Pence enacted the controversial Restoration of Religious Freedom Act, which many experts say pointedly denied rights to the LGBT community.
The law was amended to help prevent discriminatory business practices – but is now used to help minorities gain religious freedom protection.
The Indiana American Civil Liberties Union cited the law, among other things, when it filed a lawsuit last week against the Boone County Sheriff’s Office for its refusal to serve halal food to a Muslim inmate. Halal refers to Islamic dietary rules, which include not eating pork.
Inmate Thomas Gannon said he was served pork and other meats that are not halal on several occasions, even after telling prison staff the food did not conform to his religion. Ken Falk, legal director of Indiana ACLU, said if Thomas did not eat the food served by the prison, his only option would be to buy food with the money he had from the prison commissioner.
âIt violates his religious freedom,â Falk said.
The state’s law undermines its previous bad reputation and is used for what religious freedom laws typically do – to help religious minorities, said Richard Garnett, professor of law at Notre Dame Law School.
“In recent months, it has become more and more common for people to associate (religious freedom) laws with divisive social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion,” he said. But “typical cases involve individuals who are vulnerable members of a religious community who have been overwhelmed, such as an Amish family or a Muslim prisoner.”
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Last year, when Pence, who is now on the Republican ballot with Donald Trump, signed Indiana’s âreligious freedomâ law, it immediately became a burning national issue. The lawyers said the law supported their right to freely practice their religion.
Former Republican presidential candidate and Texas senator Ted Cruz said the law “gives voice to millions of courageous conservatives across this country who are deeply concerned about the ongoing attacks on our personal freedoms.”
But the law also received backlash from opponents who said it was simply a ruse to discriminate against the LGBT community. Indiana law would make it easier for individuals to use religion to legally justify discrimination or denial of service.
Related: Restoration of Religious Freedom Act: What You Need to Know
Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton tweeted, âSad, this new Indiana law can happen in America today. We should not discriminate ppl bc from those they love.
“The law is part of a larger attempt by people who have felt assaulted by the growing legal protections of same-sex couples,” said Robert Katz, professor of law at the Robert H. McKinney School of Law. Indiana University. “It wasn’t necessary at the start,” he said.
A week later, after intense domestic criticism, Pence amended the law explicitly prohibiting companies from refusing service on the basis of “race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or US military service â.
With this, Indiana state law came close to federal religious law and similar laws in other states.
“There will be some who will think this legislation goes too far and others who will think it does not go far enough, but as governor I always have to put the best interests of our state first and ask myself every day: “What’s best for Indiana,” Pence said, shortly after signing the amendment.
After Pence’s “fix”, the law became largely disarmed to do what many critics said was its original discriminatory intent.
Related: Religious Freedom Controversy: Indiana Lawmakers Announce Law Changes
In fact, the opposite has happened, the law has since become an additional tool to combat religious discrimination, Katz said.
“Once amended to prevent discrimination, the story was over and (the law) became mainstream law again,” he said.
The law has been used sparingly since its inception last year, appearing in relatively few instances, Katz said.
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Last year, the ACLU used the law to fight a state law prohibiting sex offenders from attending religious services in churches that house or are near schools, saying the ban violates their right to practice religion.
In another pending case, a new religion called the Church of Cannabis is using the law to justify its use of marijuana, which is illegal in Hoosier State.
âI would be surprised if this argument went anywhere,â said David Orentlicher, Indiana University law professor at Robert H. McKinney School of Law. There have been many times the drug use challenged under religion and the government has balanced it, he said.
What people tend to forget is that the law is not a “broad exemption or a no-get-out card,” he said. Even though there is an exemption for religious freedom under the law, that doesn’t mean the state will grant it, he said.
âThere is always a well-established balance between religious freedom and the public interest. “