Blacks should be outraged by Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Shannon Williams
Shannon Williams

Hoosier Hospitality. It’s a catchphrase and a cherished characterization of the kindness shown by many Indiana residents, communities and businesses. Unfortunately, with last week’s hush-hush signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and his arrogant attitude toward concerned citizens and the press, Gov. Mike Pence has put the nation on notice that Indiana is just not as universally hospitable as its catchphrase claims.

It’s not “hospitality” to limit individuals or discriminate against them for subjective reasons.

Hospitality is embracing all types of people and respecting one another despite differences.

Indiana’s RFRA debate sparked a lot of much-needed attention to and from the LGBT community. This demographic of people are often discriminated against, unfairly judged and unfairly stereotyped.

What I appreciate most about the LGBT community is their courage to stand up in the face of challenge, adversity and discrimination. I respect their proactive approach to boldly fight for fair treatment.

As I stayed abreast of all the local and national news coverage Pence’s RFRA garnered, I couldn’t help but think of the struggle of African-Americans and how this law could drastically impact Blacks and other minorities.

While the focus has been on the LGBT community, Blacks should be just as concerned. Not too long ago segregation thrived in Indiana and Blacks faced overt discrimination. Many business owners who proudly displayed “Whites only” signs in their establishment were adamant in their racist beliefs that God created Blacks to be inferior to whites.

Based on their religious beliefs, they felt Blacks were less-than and should be treated as such— including the discriminatory refusal of service.

As it stands, Indiana’s RFRA allows businesses to deny service to people if that business owner justifies his or her actions on the basis of religious belief. In other words, if a shop owner says “I refuse to serve you because my religion says being gay or Black is wrong,” that business owner’s discriminatory practice would be upheld based on the broad scope of the law.

The RFRA law states the government cannot “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.” This means if a lawsuit was filed, it probably wouldn’t get very far because the business owner would be protected under the confines of the law.

RFRA can protect bigoted business owners, but because Indiana does not have a hate crimes law, residents remain vulnerable. It is not a state hate crime in Indiana to burn a cross on a Black Hoosier family’s lawn, or spray-paint a swastika on a synagogue. (Yes, there are federal protections in place, but in practice, the federal government cannot be everywhere.)

The Indiana of yesteryear was not so long ago and the plight of African-Americans remains evident today, just in less obvious ways.

Black citizens should be just as outraged and concerned about the RFRA as the LGBT community. We should be boldly protesting alongside gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people of all races because our civil liberties are just as much at stake. Voter complacency and apathy can and does have adverse effects. To a degree, Blacks have grown too comfortable with our state of affairs, and excluding recent police brutality protests, our level of advocacy has decreased. Blacks need to get more engaged in key political objectives that could eventually place us in a vulnerable state. We must learn to be more proactive rather than reactive.

Pence’s efforts to appeal only to those ultra conservative members of his voting base have failed Indiana, as his message of exclusion to Indiana and the entire country were very clear. Banning the press from the bill’s signing and declining to identify the chosen few who were permitted to witness the ceremony also delivered a chilling message.

I must speak out and commend our Republican Mayor of Indianapolis, Greg Ballard, for his bold statements denouncing the governor’s effort. I believe it is important to give credit where credit is due and Ballard gets two thumbs up from me for boldly crossing party lines and staunchly standing up for fairness. He has made it clear Indianapolis does not support discrimination.

Moving forward, Indiana must move past this RFRA debacle, while also launching an effective public relations campaign that will help to allay the negative, frightening image our state is now branded with. This bipartisan effort won’t be easy, but it is certainly necessary. Our state’s reputation, economic viability and future depend on it.

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