- Associated Press - Thursday, March 26, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Indiana’s governor has signed into law a bill that prevents state government from infringing on people’s religious beliefs, despite criticism that it could allow discrimination against gay people.

Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s action on Thursday made Indiana the first state to enact such a change this year. Similar proposals have been introduced in about a dozen states.

Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which easily passed both legislative chambers, would prohibit state and local laws that “substantially burden” the ability of people, businesses and associations to follow their religious beliefs.

A similar law was passed by Congress in 1993. Similar proposals have been introduced in about a dozen states in the wake of businesses and individuals being taken to court for not wanting to provide insurance for abortion-inducing products or servicing same-sex wedding activities out of religious beliefs.

Mr. Pence said this week he believed the measure “is about respecting and reassuring Hoosiers that their religious freedoms are intact.”

National gay-rights groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, have denounced these legislative actions, and some businesses and organizations have said the law is causing them to rethink their business choices in Indiana.

In a letter to Mr. Pence sent Wednesday, leaders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) said the legislation was causing them to reconsider plans to hold their 6,000-person General Assembly in Indianapolis in 2017.

In addition, the chief executive of a gathering of gamers considered to be the city’s largest annual convention also expressed concern about the bill, which passed its last legislative hurdle on Tuesday.

Supporters say discrimination concerns are overblown because the bill is modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and 19 states have similar laws on the books.

However, the current political climate is far different than it was when most of those were approved because the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this year on whether gay marriage bans violate the Constitution.

Conservative groups say the Indiana measure merely seeks to prevent the government from compelling people to provide such things as catering or photography for same-sex weddings or other activities they find objectionable on religious grounds.

“I think you will find that, if you do your homework in it, this law is not going to allow you to discriminate against anyone else or anyone’s rights in this country,” GOP Indiana Senate President Pro Tem David Long said.

But the Republican mayor of Indianapolis said he believed the proposal would send the “wrong signal” for the city, and its tourism and convention agency raised concerns that it could lead some convention planners to regard Indiana as an unwelcoming place.

The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and Columbus-based engine maker Cummins Inc. are among business groups that have opposed the bill on the grounds that it could make it more difficult to attract top companies and employees.

Adrian Swartout, the chief executive of the 50,000-person Gen Con gamers’ convention, said the legislation could affect the group’s decision to hold the major event in Indianapolis past 2020. He said it would have “a direct negative impact on the state’s economy.”

Similar bills have been advancing this year in Arkansas and Georgia, as well as other legislatures.

Last year, Mississippi enacted a religious objection law just weeks after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed a similar effort there amid criticism from major corporations.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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