Teachable Instant: Indiana's 'Religious Freedom' Law

In this brief lesson, students consider competing rights, including the right not to be discriminated against vs. the right of religious freedom.  

In the News

Share with students the following information, or ask them to read it.

On March 26, 2015, Governor Mike Pence of Indiana signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The law protects the rights of individuals to practice their faith without interference from government bodies. The practical effect is to protect people from anti-discrimination suits if the discrimination is based on religious beliefs. The law will only affect those groups not protected by federal or state anti-discrimination laws—primarily lesbians and gays.

The law also gives corporations those same religious protections.  Many civil rights groups, companies, newspapers, Indiana citizens and even the mayor of Indiana's largest city have opposed the law because it will make it easier for people to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

The Indiana law is widely seen as a response to widespread legalization of same-sex marriage. More than 70 percent of Americans now live in states where same-sex couples are allowed to marry. In April 2015, the Supreme Court will consider whether same-sex marriage is a Constitutional right.

In June 2014, a federal court struck down Indiana's ban on same-sex marriages and they became legal in October 2014. In the past year, legislation similar to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been introduced in 12 other states.

At the same time, courts have had to decide some high-profile cases involving the federal Religious Rights Restoration Act. One case, involving the Hobby Lobby company, ended with a Supreme Court decision establishing the rights of companies to assert religious rights.

  • "This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it."
    —Indiana Governor Mike Pence
  • "It is a signal to those who want to discriminate that they have greater leeway to do so."
    —Jennifer Pizer, Lambda Legal (a national LGBT civil rights organization)


Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

The Indiana law is about competing rights, including the right to exercise one's religion (even if that religion discriminates) versus the right to not be discriminated against.  Which right should take precedence?

Ask students to signal their opinion about each of the following scenarios with a thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs sideways (undecided or mixed).  If there is time, ask students in each group (thumbs up, thumbs down) to explain their view.

  • The owners of a bakery that makes wedding cakes will not allow employees to make a cake for a same-sex couple because the owners' religion sees homosexuality as a sin.
  • A religious private school cannot fire an employee after she has an abortion, even if the religion forbids abortion.
  • A religious group that uses banned substances in spiritual ceremonies is exempt from drug laws.
  • A church member is required to testify in a child labor case even though testifying about her church's internal affairs violates her religious beliefs.
  • A police officer is allowed to refuse to attend a community meeting held in a mosque because of religious objections.

For Discussion

  • When a person's religion requires them to discriminate against certain groups, which right wins—the right to exercise one's religion or the right to not be discriminated against?
  • Should business corporations have the same religious rights as individuals?
  • Some big businesses, especially tech companies, have strongly opposed the Religious Freedom Act and are cutting back on their business activities in Indiana.  What do you think of corporations wielding economic power on social issues?


Text of the law: http://www.indystar.com/story/news/politics/2015/03/27/text-indianas-religious-freedom-law/70539772/

ACLU testimony against the law: http://www.aclu-in.org/images/newsReleases/RFRA_testimony_w_edits_2-9-15.pdf

Statement by the Indiana Catholic Conference supporting the law: http://www.indianacc.org/bins/site/content/documents/RFRA%20%20SB%20101%20letterhead.pdf?_resolutionfile=ftppath|documents/RFRA%20%20SB%20101%20letterhead.pdf (no longer active)

Indiana Republican arguments for the law: http://www.indianahouserepublicans.com/clientuploads/PDF/RFRA%20QA%5B1%5D.pdfhttp://www.employmentlawdaily.com/index.php/2015/03/26/indiana-religious-freedom-restoration-law-is-far-broader-than-rfra/

Heritage Foundation commentary supporting the law: http://dailysignal.com/2015/03/26/indiana-protects-religious-liberty-why-thats-good-policy/