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Smith: Why, Again, Do We Need a Religious Freedom bill?
Smith: Why, Again, Do We Need a Religious Freedom bill?
By Erika D. Smith / indystar.com

At 8:30 Monday morning, one woman held up a handmade, rainbow-colored sign that summed up what was about to happen at the Statehouse.

"Haven't we already done this?"

As it turns out, we haven't.

At least I don't think we have. Actually, I have no idea what we're doing.

After five hours of impassioned testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, the only thing I know for certain is that "religious freedom" legislation will go before the full House. It passed out of committee, 9 to 4.

Other than that, what happened on Monday was a ball of confusion.

Why, again, does Indiana need a religious freedom bill? What exactly will it do? Who exactly will it help? Who exactly will it hurt?

I'm not sure.

Freedom Indiana, the grassroots group that opposed a same-sex marriage ban last year, started the day with a rally. Dozens of red-shirted opponents argued that the bill is a "license to discriminate," particularly against the gay community.

Yet, inside the House chamber, Democrats asked whether businesses could be sued for firing employees who refuse to do their jobs for religious reasons.

Republicans, meanwhile, stayed the course about Indiana needing the bill to protect the right of business owners who don't want to make cakes or take photos for gay couples who are getting married. Never mind the law professor who warned that "the odds of success for the religious objector are slim, but not impossible," and even with a religious freedom law on the books, "discrimination just for the sake of discrimination will not be tolerated."

Then there was the bill's sponsor, Rep. Tim Wesco, who argued that Indiana needs the bill to protect churches like one in Goshen that is pushing to expand into a largely retail district.

"The board of zoning appeals should not discriminate against that church simply because they're religious," he said.

Other supporters said the bill would protect pharmacies that don't want to sell morning-after pills and Muslim women who want to wear hijab head-coverings despite bans on wearing hats in a classroom. A monk said the bill would help prevent the United States from going down the same slippery slope as Cuba, where he had to flee religious persecution.

"There is no reason for us to stand here if the signs of the times weren't coming our way," intoned Father David Mary Engo of Fort Wayne.

Perhaps Cummins Inc.'s Marya Rose put it best when she reminded lawmakers about the two "very smart" attorneys who predicted that the bill would do very different things.

"Maybe we don't really know," she told the committee. "How's a business to know?"

Indeed, how are any of us to know?

In the sane world, that would be reason enough to put this bill on ice. But these days, there's nothing sane about politics. There are sobering facts amid the insanity, though.

First, if this bill does become law, it will complicate — if not invalidate — the enforcement of several city-enacted anti-discrimination laws, including one in Indianapolis. The means the one, admittedly flimsy, layer of legal protection afforded gays and lesbians would suddenly be gone in a dozen Indiana cities — even though those protections already don't apply to private businesses, such as bakeries and photography studios.

Second, the law could put some corporations on shaky legal ground with their employees, who might want to opt out of duties that conflict with their beliefs.

Third, the law also would put at ease Hoosiers who genuinely feel their religion and their religious institutions are under siege from an increasingly pluralistic society.

The question is at what cost.

Instead of fighting old battles and going in search of new ones, that's what we should be asking ourselves — what's the cost? And if we can't answer that, then maybe we don't need a new religious freedom law at all.

Contact Star columnist Erika D. Smith at (317) 444-6424, erika.smith@indystar.com or on Twitter at @erika_d_smith.

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Smith: Why, Again, Do We Need a Religious Freedom bill?