Indiana ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill Permits Legal Entities to Sue for Damages

Indiana-statehouse

Indiana’s legislature is currently considering a number of so-called “religious freedom” bills that have arose in the months since the state was forced to begin recognizing same-sex marriages.

Senate Bill 568 prohibits the state or local governments from passing laws that “compel a person to take an action that is contrary to the person’s exercise of religion.”

The bill is worded so broadly that a “person” not only includes an individual but also “an association, a partnership, a limited liability company, a corporation, a church, a religious institution, an estate, a trust, a foundation, or any other legal entity.”

The only exception to the proposed bill would be if the state or local governments within Indiana could demonstrate a “compelling governmental interest” and that the measure would be the “least restrictive means of furthering the compelling government interest.”

SB 568 goes even further, authorizing “appropriate relief” in the form of injunctive relief, declaratory relief and compensatory damages, as well as the “recovery of court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has come out against the bill and other so-called “religious freedom” legislation, citing the potential for unintended consequences and examples in other states where the laws have been abused.

“The legislation is so broadly written that there may be unforeseen and harmful consequences to our state,” Jane Henegar, the Executive Director of the ACLU of Indiana, told the state senate’s Judiciary Committee during a hearing on SB 568.

“Moreover, the bills create a widespread and negative perception of Indiana by appearing to invite the use of religion to discriminate, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. For these reasons, we urge you to oppose these bills.”

Henegar mentioned real-life examples of religious freedom bills in other states that had unexpected impacts on residents. She cited a police officer in Oklahoma who used a religious objection to “attending, or even assigning another officer to attend, a community relations event held at a mosque.”

She also mentioned how pharmacists have refused to dispense contraception in several states and a guidance counselor in Michigan refused to help a gay student due to the counselor’s religious beliefs.

“In this country, we have the absolute right to believe whatever we want about God, faith, and religion, and we have the right to act on our beliefs, but we do not have the right to harm others,” Henegar added.

LGBT rights group Lambda Legal has also come out in opposition to the bill.

“This bill attempts to strip away existing, essential protections for Indiana workers, families and others. It would upset the balance between religious freedom and freedom from imposition of others’ religious beliefs, creating many potential areas of dispute among all Hoosiers. SB568 extends religious exercise rights to for-profit companies of all sizes — no matter what goods they make or services they sell, they’re treated much like churches,” says Jennifer Pizer, National Director of Lambda Legal’s Law and Policy Project

“If passed, this bill would invite discrimination and unfair preferences based on others’ religious beliefs in vital areas of life that should remain protected under law,” Pizer added.

Republicans in the state legislature, who expanded their control in Indianapolis during the 2014 midterm elections, have seized the opportunity to pass a string of bills aimed at pleasing religious conservatives. Republicans control the Indiana House 71 to 29 and the Indiana Senate 40 to 10.

While the ultimate fate of SB 568 is not yet known — it currently sits in the Judiciary Committee — the state senate has since approved Senate Bill 127, a different “religious freedom” bill that focuses on employment.

As we reported two weeks ago, SB 127 would allow a “religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society” to give preference in employment to people of a certain religion. It would also allow those organizations to require “all employees and applicants conform to the religious tenets of the organization.”

SB 127 passed in a 39-11 vote mostly along party lines. One Republican, Ron Grooms of Jeffersonville, joined every Democrat in the chamber to vote against the measure. The rest of the Republican caucus supported the bill.

Governor Mike Pence appeared at a statehouse rally earlier in the week in support of the bills, indicating that he will sign them into law should they reach his desk.

Image Credit: Noah Coffey, flickr

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