Of the 13 religious freedom bills introduced in state legislatures around the United States this year — which critics say would legalize discrimination against LGBT people — one leads the pack in Indiana, where a measure appears on the verge of passage with backing from the general assembly and governor.
"I would predict the bill passes on Monday," Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview Thursday.
Described by one of his critics as "the most powerful person in Indiana when the legislature is in session," Bosma had just wrapped up a House vote in which his Republican majority shot down six amendments to soften the bill, all from Democrats, in 60-to-30 votes. "I think the votes on the amendments were a strong sign of how the bill will fare in final passage," said Bosma.
Bosma has tentatively scheduled a final vote for Monday, March 23.
At a news conference earlier this week, Gov. Mike Pence said, "I strongly support the legislation and will sign it if it reaches my desk.” A spokesperson confirmed Thursday that Pence's view on the legislation has not changed.
SB 101 says that a "governmental
entity may not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion," while also applying the rules to businesses and interactions between private parties. It would ban employees from suing employers under law.
After a cascade of court rulings to allow same-sex marriage, religious freedom has become an increasingly contested issue in capitals, courts, and places of public accommodation. Several businesses have turned away LGBT customers, claiming that providing services for same-sex weddings violated their faith.
Opponents of the bill seem largely resigned to losing.
"It does seem like they have decided that this should be the law in Indiana," Jennifer Wagner, a spokesperson for the LGBT advocacy group Freedom Indiana, told BuzzFeed News.
"I think it is a backlash to marriage equality," Wagner added. She said progress for LGBT rights has given lawmakers urgency to pass a law that creates a "license to discriminate" against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
But Bosma countered, "No, I don't believe that at all. There has been a lot of hyperbolic discussion about what the bill will allow."
The bill, Bosma argued, would establish a "legal standard when equality and religious freedom compete." He cited an advocacy letter sent to lawmakers by 16 law professors who support the bill. In his reading of the letter, Bosma said, the bill would "not allow that type of discrimination."
But some of bill's loudest advocates seem to think otherwise.
Advance America — which describes itself as a "pro-family, pro-church" organization — advocates on its website the bill be passed to "protect individuals, Christian businesses and churches from those supporting homosexual marriages and those supporting government recognition and approval of gender identity (male cross-dressers)."
"Christian bakers, florists and photographers should not be punished for refusing to participate in a homosexual marriage!" the group proclaims. "A Christian business should not be punished for refusing to allow a man to use the women’s restroom!"
"I don’t think you can be any clearer than that," said Jane Henegar, director of the ACLU of Indiana. "That's how they are selling it to their followers."
Despite her group's opposition to the bill, Henegar said passage is expected: "The indications are that it has the support."
In trying to tamp down concerns, Bosma noted that Congress approved a Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, and several states have had longstanding religious freedom laws on the books that reflect the federal law, which have not resulted in discrimination.
But Henegar countered that the bill in Indiana is "broader than the federal" law and "raises a whole host of concerns."
Rather than solely banning government from burdening a person's religious freedom, the Indiana bill allows a legal defense in interactions "regardless of whether the state or any other government entity is party to the proceeding." The religious liberty defense would be available under all state laws and local ordinances, unless state law provides a specific exemption from it.
Henegar said this opens the door for legal challenges around the state, even though there is "no sea change that suggests government is intent on overriding their religious liberties. The only thing that has changed is some greater degree of equality for the LGBT community."
Asked by BuzzFeed News about concerns the law could be used to turn away LGBT customers, a spokesperson for Gov. Pence, Christy Denault, said only, "This bill is about preventing government infringement on religious freedom."