Indianapolis, IN – The governor of Indiana said the legislature would modify a newly signed bill that critics and some meeting planners fear would result in some local businesses refusing to serve attendees.
Gov. Mike Pence told reporters on March 31 that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was never intended to give business owners blanket legal cover to refuse to serve or otherwise do business with individuals or groups based on sexual orientation. Pence said protections against discrimination would be clarified through new legislation. “It would be helpful to move legislation this week that makes it clear that this law does not give businesses a right to deny services to anyone,” he said.
The specific steps Pence and the legislature might take were not clear, but the governor said in an op-ed piece published by the Wall Street Journal on March 30 that under the new law, business people had a burden of proof to demonstrate that rebuffing a customer due to their sexual orientation or any other factor was indeed a serious affront to their religious beliefs and values and would create problems for them.
Pence wrote: “…RFRA only provides a mechanism to address claims, not a license for private parties to deny services. Even a claim involving private individuals under RFRA must show that one’s religious beliefs were ‘substantially burdened’ and not in service to a broader government interest—which preventing discrimination certainly is. The government has the explicit power under the law to step in and defend such interests.”
Legal observers have noted that 19 other states have laws on the books similar to Indiana’s but they have never been used to justify incidents of discrimination. “No one has ever won an exemption from a discrimination law under a RFRA standard,” University of Virginia Law School professor Douglas Laycock told the Washington Times.
Visit Indy, the official convention bureau for Indianapolis, did not immediately officially respond to the growing controversy; however, its website prominently displayed a marketing pitch aimed at gay tourists under the banner, “All are Welcome in Indy.”
IMPACT ON EVENTS UNCLEAR
The actual impact that the RFRA might have on trade shows and their attendees was an open question, particularly given the fact that most attendees tend to stick around the downtown convention center. But the idea that the new law would open the door to problems sparked a nationwide reaction, including threats for corporate meetings to steer clear of Indianapolis.
John Graham, president and CEO of ASAE, The Center for Association Leadership, sent a letter to Pence and other state officials, urging them to “clarify” that the new law would not allow discrimination.
“Laws that permit discrimination are not only regressive, they put our members at risk of being denied service anywhere, from restaurants to meeting and convention facilities, and sends a harmful message that fairness, equality and the principles of our Constitution are secondary to personal prejudice,” Graham wrote on March 30. “ASAE has many members, industry partners and vendors in Indiana and is concerned that the measure adopted could create an unwelcoming environment for some residents and visitors to the state.”
The possibility that trade shows could become the target of protests or a boycott was raised in a letter sent by the IAEE to Pence on March. “IAEE and our members do not support any legislation or actions that could lead to discrimination at any level. Nor can we support the boycotting of exhibitions, meetings and events as a weapon in this debate,” said the letter, which was signed by Chair Megan Tanel.
The Seattle-based ownership of Gen Con, an annual gamer enthusiast show held at the Indiana Convention Center since 2003, issued a statement to attendees calling the flap over the RFRA more than a misunderstanding. “A significant portion of Gen Con attendees identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, and we are reading that some members of our community feel unsafe traveling to Indiana,” Gen Con LLC CEO/Owner Adrian Swartout wrote.
Gen Con is under contract to run in Indianapolis through 2020. Swartout said the July 30-August 2 show would run as scheduled, but his show was “halting plans to expand Gen Con into Lucas Oil Stadium, and plans for further expansion into other hotel convention space.”
Reach Leonard Hoops, president & CEO of Visit Indy, at (317) 262-8282 or lhoops@VisitIndy.com; John Graham at (202) 626-2723 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Adrian Swartout at (206) 957-3976 or email@example.com