Diaspora discord: Indiana Jews and the state’s new ‘religious freedom’ law

Jewish leaders in the Midwestern state react to the controversial measure that was ratified last week.

By
April 1, 2015 19:52
3 minute read.
Indiana

Demonstrators in Indiana gather to protest a controversial religious freedom bill recently signed by Governor Mike Pence. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The local Jewish community in Indiana has chimed in among reactions sweeping the US over the Midwestern state's passage into law last week of a controversial bill said to protect "religious freedom."

Indiana last Thursday ratified the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which states that a "government entity" cannot "substantially burden" what is broadly classified as "a person's exercise of religion."

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Opponents of the law are worried that it will provide legal grounds for businesses to discriminate against homosexuals, while its mainly conservative backers claim that the measure was taken in order to protect religious liberties.

While widespread condemnation of the legislation has centered on its broad language that could possibly allow for the refusal of services to members of the LGBT community, various Jewish leaders across the state have also voiced their concern over implications for minority groups.

“I think the law is extremely backwards. It’s like we are regressing as a society,” Michael Steinberg, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Northwest Indiana, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.

“One of the great things I take pride in as an American is freedom of speech and expression - and this law, to me, is extremely prejudicial and doesn’t look at people as individuals, but as perceived as what they represent,” he added.

The Robert A. and Sandra S. Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University’s campus in Bloomington stood behind the position of the university’s president, Michael McRobbie, in lamenting the negative attention shed on the state by the RFRA law and reaffirming commitment to “the Hoosier values of fair treatment and non-discrimination.”

“I am supportive and concerned about our diverse body of Jewish Studies students,” the program’s Assistant Director Carolyn Lipson-Walker told the Post by e-mail in light of the recent developments.

In the state’s capital of Indianapolis, the Jewish Community Relations Council also expressed its strong opposition to the law, saying the RFRA law puts the civil rights of religion and equal protection “on a collision course with each other.”

“We feel that this statute will ultimately threaten religious freedom more than protect it, particularly minority communities such as ours,” the Indianapolis JCRC said in a statement a day after the law was signed.

The organization, which says it serves as the official consensus-building and public policy organization representing more than 95 percent of central Indiana’s Jews, added that “As members of a religious minority who have faced discrimination because of our religious practices, we deeply regret the inherent injustice this law potentially creates.”

The JCRC stated that it has receive a great number of responses from its community members in "overwhelming" opposition to the move.

Indiana’s Jewish population stands at an estimated 17,000.

Along with local Jewish leaders, LGBT activists, several large corporations including Apple Inc., along with celebrities like Ashton Kutcher have rebuked the law.

“Indiana are you also going to allow Christian establishments to ban Jews from coming in? Or Vice Versa? Religious freedom??? ‪#OUTRAGE,” Kutcher wrote on Twitter last week.

As the state faces possible economic blows in response to the new law’s ratification, the governors of Connecticut and New York issued bans this week on state-funded travel to Indiana.

On Tuesday, Indiana's Governor Mike Pence vowed to “fix” the law in the wake of what the Republican politician said was a misunderstanding of the measure.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, the state’s Democrats called for a repeal of the law.

Indiana’s governor said he intends to “correct” the “mischaracterization” of the law by adding legislation that clarifies that the decree does not give the right to businesses to deny services to anyone.

“The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was about religious liberty not about discrimination,” he said Tuesday. “Had this law been about discrimination I would have vetoed it. This law does not give anyone a license to discriminate.”

Pence said that “after much reflection and consultation with the leadership of the [state’s] General Assembly,” he wants lawmakers to draft legislation clarifying such an addendum by the end of this week.

According to US media, the RFRA law has garnered support from social conservatives such as 2016 presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, and potential Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush.

The new law, which is set to take effect July 1, comes nearly a year after efforts to secure a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in Indiana failed.
 


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