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Why all the opposition? How Indiana’s religious freedom act is different

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (March 27, 2015) - Religious freedom laws exist in 19 other states, but Indiana’s is receiving opposition from across the country.  What’s behind such strong opposition? After all, this law does exist elsewhere and it mirrors federal legislation that’s been in existence for more than 20 years.

“This bill is not about discrimination and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way, I would’ve vetoed it,” Governor Mike Pence told reporters during a press conference Thursday.

The Governor is sticking to his guns. 19 other states have religious freedom laws that mirror the federal religious freedom restoration act that was signed into law in 1993 by then President Bill Clinton.

So why if this is already state law in nearly half the country, and if it has been Federal law for more than 20 years, is there now such uproar?

“We have this very particularized conflict between Christians and progressive gay rights interests,” said Indiana University constitutional law professor, John Hill.

Hill said Indiana’s law cannot discriminate against race or sex since both are protected under anti-discrimination laws in Indiana. However, no such protection exists for gays or lesbians; something that has prompted fear among the law’s opponents.

“While we’re focusing now on religious liberty claims and gay rights, this law will apply now in lots of other areas that we’re kind of overlooking,” said Hill.

Hill says though the bill could have widespread, unintended implications. For instance, he says the law could allow drug use on the basis of religious freedom, or permit religious clothing to be worn in the military, something currently prohibited.

“We always see these sorts of political ping pong matches between courts and states, state legislatures; we see it in the abortion context for example,” said Hill.

With that said, 16 law professors from universities around the country sent a letter of support to Indiana lawmakers saying the state’s religious freedom act is “hardly radical” and “business owners refusing to serve gays and lesbians, is a myth.”

“I think in time, people will see it for what it is and they’ll see we did the right thing here,” said Pence.

Hill said there’s also the potential that this law will supersede local ordinances in Indiana that protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.