Laslo Boyd: Discrimination By Any Name

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By: Laslo Boyd

No matter what you call it, discrimination is wrong.  Period.  If that discrimination is rationalized by the fig leaf of religion, it’s still wrong and from my viewpoint even more disappointing.

What I remember from Religion 101 are the core ideas that you should treat others as you want them to treat you and that you should love your neighbor as you do yourself.  Perhaps in some places the more advanced courses modified those concepts, but they still seem like pretty good guidelines.  Just as none of the Republican presidential candidates is a scientist, I’m no theologian, but I’m still convinced that discrimination and bigotry are not justified by any religious tenet.

There are some people in Indiana, including Governor Mike Pence and a majority of the members of the state legislature, who have a different view.   Indiana enacted a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” last week.   By some strange coincidence, their action followed Federal court decisions last fall that nullified the State’s ban on same sex marriage.

The wording of the law as well as the timing of its enactment have led many supporters of gay rights to conclude that the intent was to allow Indiana businesses to refuse to provide goods or services to gays if they assert a religious basis for their refusal.  Governor Pence, given numerous opportunities by George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week” to clarify the intent of the law, repeatedly ducked the question.

All we learned from the interview was that Pence blames the media for the backlash to the law and that he thinks Indiana residents, Hoosiers, are wonderful people.  “Nothing to look for here, no discrimination against gays, just God-fearing folks exercising their religious freedom.” 

Pence tried to divert attention from the current law by asserting that it was the same as a federal law that President Bill Clinton signed and a state law in Illinois that then State Senator Barack Obama supported.  However, Illinois has designated sexual orientation as a protected right, which totally changes the burden of proof. Pence made it very clear that such a designation is not on his agenda.  More significantly, the reference to the mid-1990s federal law underscores how far we have come as a nation since then. 

On Tuesday, after Pence realized he could not ignore the national backlash, he called on the state legislature to “fix” the law.    Even then, he asserted that the problem was how critics had perceived the intent and insisted that even in its present form the law does not allow a business to refuse to serve anyone. 

At this point, you have to wonder what problem they thought they were addressing when they passed the law.  And if things weren’t messy enough, much of the Republican presidential field rushed to support Pence and the Indiana law.  What do you suppose they’ll have to say about the “fix”?

Prior to last week, Pence was mentioned by some observers as a potential Republican presidential candidate.  His performance may help him with the far right of his party, but is likely to sink whatever faint chance he might have had with the broader electorate.

That may be the least of Pence’s problems.  The Governor is going the wrong way down a one-way street.  History is moving the other way.   My guess is that most Hoosiers are not the bigots for whom this law is transparent pandering.   What Pence really should worry about, however, is how the rest of the country reacts and whether his “fix” changes anything.

Pence’s decision to “fix” the law was precipitated by an avalanche of negatives reactions.  Angie’s List indicated that it would cancel a planned multi-million dollar expansion in Indiana.  Numerous other figures, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, raised the possibility of cutting back on any discretionary economic activities in Pence’s Fantasy Land.  If business associations, trade groups, and other convention related activities stay away from Indiana, the impact could be profound.  Pence and the legislature may not care about gay voices, but they are unlikely to ignore the sound of silence that signifies lost revenues.

For many people, Indiana is now on their minds because college basketball’s Final Four will be held this coming weekend in Indianapolis.   That city is also home to the NCAA, which is having enough image problems of its own without being seen as a collaborator with the Pence anti-gay agenda.

The sports connection has a significant Maryland angle.  This coming May, the Big Ten will hold a meeting in Indianapolis.  That city has been the regular site for the Conference’s football championship game and for its end of season basketball tournament.   It’s clear from news reports that the new Indiana law will be a subject of discussion at that meeting.

Given Maryland’s adoption of a Marriage Equality law and the state’s strong support for LGBT rights, it’s entirely reasonable to expect University of Maryland President Wallace Loh and Athletic Director Kevin Anderson to advocate strongly that the conference move its activities out of Indiana if there’s not a substantial change in state policy.   If intercollegiate athletics is truly about building character, this is a golden opportunity for Loh and Anderson to take a leadership position on an issue of great moral significance.

Of course, the challenge to Indiana’s law shouldn’t be left just to the world of athletics.  There are lots of people in the Free State who are active in national associations and could raise their voice to say that what Indiana’s political leaders have done is unacceptable.  But more than voices are needed.  Action is what will make a difference, and few things would have more impact than an economic boycott of the state.

PS  To keep up with this week's latest news, you may want to substitute "Arkansas" for "Indiana" in a second reading of this column.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.