Indianapolis, IN – Indiana lawmakers and tourism officials moved quickly to defuse the uproar over a new religious freedom law. Gov. Mike Pence signed off on an amendment to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) on April 2 that firmly stated that the law could not be used as legal cover for businesses that turn away customers based on sexual orientation, race, religion, disability or for other reasons.
“I believe resolving this controversy and making it clear that every person feels welcome and respected in our state is best for Indiana,” said Pence, who had contended all along that the RFRA did not give business owners a green light to cite their religious beliefs as a reason to discriminate against individuals or groups.
The amendment also gave Indianapolis’s convention bureau some welcome news to share with organizers. “Since the law was amended, we’ve been letting customers know of the widespread support for Indy from national LGBT rights groups like the American Unity Fund, and from organizations such as the NCAA and Professional Convention Management Association,” Leonard Hoops, president and CEO of Visit Indy, told Trade Show Executive. “If there is a silver lining to this issue, it’s that we didn’t have a single cancellation of a group booked by Visit Indy.”
The passage of the RFRA in March stirred up a hornet’s nest of criticism nationwide, including warnings from corporate meeting planners and trade show organizers that the law could open the door to discrimination against attendees. The threat of potential boycotts by trade shows in Indiana was also raised, prompting the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE) to fire off a letter to the governor stating: “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.”
The actual impact that the RFRA might have on trade shows and their attendees was an open question. But the idea that the new law would open the door to unpleasant problems raised red flags nationwide.
The Seattle-based ownership of Gen Con, an annual gamer enthusiast show held at the Indiana Convention Center since 2003, was one of the first events to publicly object to the RFRA; although Gen Con is under contract to run in Indianapolis through 2020. Gen Con LLC CEO/Owner Adrian Swartout said in a message to attendees that the July 30-August 2 show would run as scheduled, but Gen Con was “halting plans to expand into Lucas Oil Stadium, and plans for further expansion into other hotel convention space.”
Following passage of the RFRA amendment, Swartout issued a statement calling the changes “an important first step.” “We believe that all attendees will continue to receive the warm response that we have enjoyed for more than a decade,” he said.
The response of Gen Con was exactly what Visit Indy was looking for. And while the controversy may or may not fade away in the coming weeks, it appeared the possible future damage had been minimized.
“Our sales and services teams were in regular contact with every customer who had expressed concerns about the RFRA,” Hoops said. “We shared how we had opposed the law as originally written because it didn’t align with Indianapolis’ own longstanding human rights ordinance and we assured them we were working to have it amended before it ever took effect.”