Tag Archives: bias

Federal court weighs key decision on LGBT-workplace bias

A rare full-court session of a U.S. appeals court in Chicago heard arguments this week on whether protections under a 1964 Civil Rights Act should be expanded to cover workplace discrimination against LGBT employees, as hopes dim among some gay rights activists that the question will be resolved in their favor following Republican election victories.

Several of the 11 judges at the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals signaled they are ready to enter what would be a historic ruling broadening the scope the 52-year-old landmark law, with the court directing the toughest questions during the hourlong hearing at a lawyer who argued only Congress could extend the protections.

Judge Richard Posner repeatedly interrupted the lawyer representing an Indiana community college that was sued by a lesbian for alleged discrimination and at one point asked: “Who will be hurt if gays and lesbians have a little more job protection?” When attorney John Maley said he couldn’t think of anyone who would be harmed, Posner shot back, “So, what’s the big deal?”

Even if the 7th Circuit becomes the first U.S. appellate court to rule that the law covers sexual-orientation bias, legal experts say the issue is likely to land before the Supreme Court. Chances of a majority of justices agreeing that workplace protections should include LGBT workers will be slimmer if President-elect Donald Trump fills a high court vacancy with a social conservative.

A GOP-majority House and Senate also makes it unlikely the next Congress will amend the statute, said Chicago-based labor lawyer Barry Hartstein.

“You can’t count on Congress or the courts,” said Hartstein, who wants the act to cover LGBT workers.

President Barack Obama’s administration has taken the position that the law already prohibits discrimination of LGBT workers. It has criticized courts for a reluctance to reach the same conclusion.

The 7th Circuit decided in October to rehear the case of teacher Kimberly Hively, who claimed Ivy Tech Community College didn’t hire her full time because she is a lesbian. The full court vacated the July finding by three of its own judges that the civil rights law doesn’t cover sexual-orientation bias. A new ruling is expected within several weeks.

The hearing focused on the meaning of the word ‘sex’ in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the provision that bans workplace bias based on race, religion, national origin or sex. Multiple court rulings back Maley’s contention that Congress meant for the word to refer only to whether a worker was male or female. Given that, he said it would be wrong to stretch the meaning of ‘sex’ in the statute to also include sexual orientation.

The school’s lawyer conceded the law is imprecise, but added: “That makes it an issue for Congress.”

Several judges challenged him for arguing it’s not a federal court’s place to mandate that a law do something lawmakers didn’t originally intend for it to do.

“You seem to think the meaning of the statute was frozen on the day it passed,” Posner said to Maley. “That, of course, is false.” And the judge added: “Are we bound by what people thought in 1964?”

He and other judges pointed to bans on interracial marriage as examples of laws that changed or were expanded by courts as societal norms changed.

In his presentation, the teacher’s lawyer pointed to what he described as the absurdity of one 1980s Supreme Court finding that if workers are discriminated against because they don’t behave around the office by norms of how men or women should behave, then that does violate the Civil Rights Law. But if a man or woman is discriminated against at work for being gay that was found not to violate the Civil Rights Act.

“You can’t discriminate against a woman because she rides a Harley, had Bears tickets or has tattoos,” attorney Gregory Nevins said. “But you can if she’s lesbian.”


Attorney General: Bonds of trust broken in Baltimore

The Justice Department has found reasonable cause that the Baltimore City Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution, as well as federal anti-discrimination laws.

The Justice Department, in the new report, said BPD makes stops, searches and arrests without the required justification; uses enforcement strategies that unlawfully subject African Americans to disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests; uses excessive force; and retaliates against individuals for their constitutionally-protected expression.

The pattern or practice results from systemic deficiencies that have persisted within BPD for many years and has exacerbated community distrust of the police, particularly in the African-American community, the federal department said.

A news release from Justice said it entered into an agreement in principle with the city to work, with community input, to create a federal court-enforceable consent decree addressing the deficiencies found during the investigation.

“Public trust is critical to effective policing and public safety,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch stated. “Our investigation found that Baltimore is a city where the bonds of trust have been broken and that the Baltimore Police Department engaged in a pattern or practice of unlawful and unconstitutional conduct, ranging from the use of excessive force to unjustified stops, seizures and arrests.”

She continued, “The results of our investigation raise serious concerns and in the days ahead, the Department of Justice will continue working tirelessly to ensure that all Baltimoreans enjoy the safety, security and dignity they expect and deserve.”

In May 2015, after considering requests from city officials and hearing from community members about a potential pattern or practice of constitutional violations, Lynch announced the investigation would take place.

The federal review focused on BPD’s use of force, stops, searches and arrests, and discriminatory policing.

Justice officials interviewed and met with city leaders and police officials, including BPD Commissioner Kevin Davis, former commissioners and numerous officers. Investigators also accompanied officers on ride-alongs, conducted hundreds of interviews and participated in meetings with community members, activists and others.

The review also involved looking through hundreds of thousands of pages of police documents, including all policies and training materials, internal affairs data and papers related to use of force, sexual assault cases and pedestrian stops, searches and arrests.

The department, according to the news release,  found the legacy of “zero tolerance” street enforcement resulted in conduct that routinely violates the U.S. Constitution and federal anti-discrimination law.

The department found reasonable cause to believe that BPD engages in a pattern or practice of:

• Conducting stops, searches and arrests without meeting the requirements of the Fourth Amendment.

• Focusing enforcement strategies on African Americans, leading to severe and unjustified racial disparities in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the Safe Streets Act.

• Using unreasonable force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

• Interacting with individuals with mental health disabilities in a manner that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

• Interfering with the right to free expression in violation of the First Amendment.

The department also identified serious concerns about other BPD practices, including an inadequate response to reports of sexual assault.

Another significant concern identified by the department was transport practices that place detainees at significant risk of harm.

In the agreement in principle, both parties agreed that compliance with the consent decree will be reviewed by an independent monitor.

The agreement in principle highlights specific areas of reform:

• Policies, training, data collection and analysis to allow for the assessment of officer activity and to ensure that officers’ actions conform to legal and constitutional requirements.

• Technology and infrastructure to ensure capability to effectively monitor officer activity.

• Officer support to ensure that officers are equipped to perform their jobs effectively and constitutionally.

• Community policing strategies to guide all aspects of BPD’s operations and help rebuild the relationship between BPD and the various communities it serves.


Washington man sentenced to prison for attacking gay men with knife

A 34-year-old Bremerton man has been sentenced to two and a half years in prison after admitting he attacked three gay men in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood with a knife.

Troy Deacon Burns pleaded guilty to a federal hate crime in August.

The attack occurred last January when Burns came up behind the men and shouted homophobic slurs. He was holding a knife and raised it over his head in a stabbing position.

The men began running, but Burns caught up to one and tried to stab him. Another man pulled the friend away and Burns was arrested.

Burns said at his plea hearing that he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol and didn’t remember what happened.

Judge James L. Robart sentenced Burns earlier this week.

Houston voters reject equal rights ordinance

Houston voters on Nov. 3 failed to affirm an ordinance that would have secured protections from discrimination for the people of the fourth largest city in the country.

The measure, Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which appeared on the ballot on Election Day, fell short of a majority vote.

The ordinance would have prohibited discrimination in places of employment, city contracting, housing, public accommodations and private employment at businesses on the basis of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity and pregnancy.

American Civil Liberties Union national political director Karin Johanson, said, “The work in Houston must continue until everyone is protected from discrimination. Houston continues to be the only major American city without a law protecting its residents from discrimination. As a result, the only protection Houstonians have is a costly federal lawsuit. In the case of LGBT Houstonians there are no explicit protections at the federal or state level. A strong local coalition will continue to work to end discrimination against all Houstonians and the ACLU will support them.”

ACLU of Texas executive director Terri Burke added, “It’s a tragedy that Houston remains the only major city in Texas—indeed, the last big city in the United States — that does not extend equal rights protections to all of its residents and visitors. Those of us who have worked to bring equality to Houston will continue the fight to ensure that everyone can live fairly and equally under the law. The next mayor and newly elected members of Houston’s city council must prioritize the passage of a new equal rights ordinance as quickly as possible.”

The city council approved Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance in May 2014, but enforcement was placed on hold pending the outcome of the citizens’ vote on Election Day.

Kenneth D. Upton Jr., senior sounsel in Lambda Legal’s South Central Regional Office in Dallas, said after the election, “We knew this vote would be an uphill battle and we witnessed the opponents of HERO pull out all the stops, launching a campaign full of distortions and fear-mongering designed to mislead and confuse voters.

“But we also saw an impressive coming together of the Houston business, faith and civic communities in Houston Unites, which campaigned tirelessly in support of HERO and for ensuring that all Houstonians can live their lives and provide for their families without fear of discrimination. Sadly, the ugly and divisive tactics of the opponents of HERO succeeded in persuading a majority of Houstonians to vote no. But we have faced disappointments before that did not stop us — this fight for fairness is far from over.”

The coalition that makes up Houston Unites includes the ACLU of Texas, Equality Texas, NAACP Houston Branch, Texas Freedom Network, Freedom for All Americans and the Human Rights Campaign.

The coaliton’s statement read, in part, “Although Houston won’t yet join the 200 other cities that have similar nondiscrimination measures, the fight continues. We will continue telling the stories of Houstonians whose lives would be better off because of HERO – including people of color, people of faith, veterans who have served our country, women, and gay and transgender people.”

Editor’s note: This story will be updated.

Blood sculpture draws attention to FDA ban on gay donors

An art installation opening in New York City draws attention to a federal ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men.

“Blood Mirror” by Jordan Eagles uses blood donated by nine gay and bisexual men. It’s encased in resin. 

It’ll be shown at Trinity Church on Wall Street from through Dec. 1, which is World AIDS Day.

Eagles says he wanted to create the 7-foot-tall interactive sculpture to show the blood could have been used to save lives.

The Food and Drug Administration instituted a lifetime ban on blood donations from gay men in 1983 in response to the AIDS crisis. This year, it proposed an updated policy allowing donations from gay men if they remained celibate for a year.

“Blood Mirror” was previously on view at the American University Museum in Washington, D.C.

Indiana governor launches reelection campaign with defense of anti-LGBT law

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence launched his re-election campaign this week by taking a defiant stance against critics of the state’s new religious objections law that battered his image as a national star among conservatives.

Pence claimed before a crowd at a state Republican Party fundraising dinner earlier this week that he doesn’t tolerate discrimination against anyone.

“Hoosiers also know that in the changing tides of popular culture there must be room for faith,” Pence said. “We will find our way forward as a state that respects the dignity and worth of every individual, and we will ensure that no government intervention, no government coercion will interfere with the freedom of conscience and the freedom of religion.”

The uproar over the law that Pence signed in March has given Democrats hope of ending a 12-year Republican hold on the state’s top office.

The 56-year-old Pence championed conservative social issues during 12 years in Congress but largely avoided them during his 2012 campaign and early in his governorship. He had been seen by in GOP circles as someone who could unite the party’s religious and business wings, and stoked talk of a White House run with speeches to prominent conservative groups and trips overseas.

Those prospects faded when he signed Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, touching off national criticism including from prominent business leaders, entertainers and sports figures.

The Republican-dominated Legislature revised the law — though it remains controversial and Indiana’s citizens still can be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The state also hired a New York public relations firm to help rebuild its image.

A poll in April found Pence’s approval rating at only 45 percent, and he’s faced persistent criticism from both business officials and social conservatives for his handling of the issue.

Pence said in his speech that he bears some responsibility for the uproar, but he also complained the controversy was spurred by liberal special interests and appears to be using the dispute to rally conservatives for his campaign.

“If you can’t tell already, this is going to be a fight and I’m ready,” Pence said of his campaign for a second four-year term.

About 50 protesters waving signs with “Fire Mike Pence” and similar slogans lined a sidewalk outside the banquet hall before Pence’s speech, at times shouting chants such as “No hate in our state.”

Democrats, noting that Indiana’s per capita income is 87 percent of the national average, said many people disagree with Pence’s positive assessment of the state’s economy and believe he caused the state lasting harm with the religious objections law.

“This is the kind of stain that doesn’t leave,” Indiana House Democratic leader Scott Pelath said. “They understand that he is willing to put the state’s economic performance at risk in the service of a social agenda.”

Pence begins the 2016 campaign with huge advantages in fundraising and organization over any potential rivals. His campaign ended last year with $3.5 million in the bank and is certain to show a large jump when updated reports are filed next month.

He doesn’t yet face any competition for the Republican nomination, although two wealthy GOP businessmen have talked about launching or supporting challenges to him.

Three Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination – state schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who has frequently clashed with Pence over education policy; former Indiana House Speaker John Gregg, who narrowly lost to Pence in the 2012 election, and state Sen. Karen Tallian of Portage.

The November 2016 election is so far away that there’s no way of knowing whether the religious objections law will still resonate with voters, said Marjorie Hershey, an Indiana University political scientist.

Pence will have the money to run an advertising blitz on other issues in the weeks leading up to the election, she said.

“It sure helps candidates who have gotten in over their heads to be able to pull back – and the way they do that, generally, is by changing the subject,” Hershey said.

Gunman kills 9 at historic black church in Charleston, S.C.

A white man opened fire during a prayer meeting inside a historic black church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people, including the pastor, in an assault authorities described as a hate crime.

The suspect attended the meeting at the church on June 17 and stayed for nearly an hour before the deadly gunfire erupted, Police Chief Greg Mullen said.

The shooter remained at large on June 18 and police released photographs from surveillance video of a suspect and a possible getaway vehicle. Mullen said he could not offer a make and model on the dark colored sedan because investigators were not certain about what is shown in the video.

The victims of the shooting were six females and three males. Mullen did not give other details about the victims.

Mullen said he believed the attack at the Emanuel AME Church was a hate crime. The suspect was described as a white man in his early 20s.

“This is a very dangerous individual,” Mullen said early on June 18.

“We want to identify this individual and arrest him before he hurts anyone else,” the chief said.

Mullen said he had no reason to think the suspect has left the Charleston area, but was distributing information about him and the vehicle around the country.

Mullen said the scene at the church was chaotic when police arrived, and the officers thought they had the suspect tracked with a police dog, but he got away.

“We will put all effort, we will put all resources and we will put all of our energy into finding this individual who committed this crime tonight,” he said.

The FBI will aid the investigation, Mullen told an earlier news conference that was attended by FBI Special Agent in Charge David A. Thomas.

Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. called the shooting “an unfathomable and unspeakable act by somebody filled with hate and with a deranged mind.”

“Of all cities, in Charleston, to have a horrible hateful person go into the church and kill people there to pray and worship with each other is something that is beyond any comprehension and is not explained,” Riley said. “We are going to put our arms around that church and that church family.”

State House Minority leader Todd Rutherford told The Associated Press that the church’s pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, was among those killed.

Pinckney 41, was a married father of two who was elected to the state house at age 23, making him the youngest member of the House at the time.

“He never had anything bad to say about anybody, even when I thought he should,” Rutherford, D-Columbia, said. “He was always out doing work either for his parishioners or his constituents. He touched everybody.”

In a statement, NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks condemned the shooting.

“There is no greater coward than a criminal who enters a house of God and slaughters innocent people engaged in the study of scripture,” Brooks said.

The attack came two months after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, by a white police officer in neighboring North Charleston that sparked major protests and highlighted racial tensions in the area. The officer has been charged with murder, and the shooting prompted South Carolina lawmakers to push through a bill helping all police agencies in the state get body cameras. Pinckney was a sponsor of that bill.

In a statement, Gov. Nikki Haley asked South Carolinians to pray for the victims and their families and decried violence at religious institutions.

“We’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another,” Haley said.

Soon after Wednesday night’s shooting, a group of pastors huddled together praying in a circle across the street.

Community organizer Christopher Cason said he felt certain the shootings were racially motivated.

“I am very tired of people telling me that I don’t have the right to be angry,” Cason said. “I am very angry right now.”

Even before Scott’s shooting in April, Cason said he had been part of a group meeting with police and local leaders to try to shore up relations.

The Emmanuel AME church is a historic African-American church that traces its roots to 1816, when several churches split from Charleston’s Methodist Episcopal church.

One of its founders, Denmark Vesey, tried to organize a slave revolt in 1822. He was caught, and white landowners had his church burned in revenge. Parishioners worshipped underground until after the Civil War.

Bias bites | Pit bull bans blasted as biased, without merit

Eavesdrop on the social circles at the local dog park.

The snippet of conversation about discrimination and bullying might sound like a discussion of the latest proposal to allow businesses to refuse service to gays. But the human companions to the canines may be denouncing breed-specific laws and defending pit bulls.

“When I walk my pit bulls, I get looks and people cross the street to get away from us,” said Lisa Williams, founder of Moonracer No Kill Animal Rescue, a nonprofit that rescues pit bulls and other large dogs from animal control shelters. “My dogs will not hurt anyone, they love people. But, because of how they look — some with cropped ears and tails, cut before I ever got them — people won’t give them a chance. People will look at our pictures on display at events and say, ‘Oh, you’re a pit bull rescue’ and walk away.

Dangerous breeds?

“So many end up in the shelter because people think they cannot be family dogs. It is the perception. … My favorite adopter was a 70-year-old island woman who adopted a pit puppy in order to promote them as the wonderful dogs they are,” said Williams, whose rescue is based in Florida.

Earlier this spring, the first known political action committee formed to fight breed-specific legislation. The Ohio PAC, founded by pit bull champions Alisha and Luke Westerman, operates under the banner Ohioans Against Breed Discrimination. The PAC maintains that breed-specific legislation is discriminatory, ineffective, unenforceable and unconstitutional.

Similar arguments were shared this spring in the Wisconsin community of Platteville, where the common council considered a proposal to prohibit Staffordshire bull terriers, American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and mixes with those breeds.

The council in April voted 4–2 against continuing a discussion on the matter after hearing from opponents of a ban, which lacked an endorsement from the police chief and was the focus of an online petition drive.

Platteville resident Kieryn Aigner launched the Care2 petition campaign in March, after Ald. Mike Denn proposed making it “unlawful to own, harbor or keep” a pit bull terrier or a mixed breed of pit bull.

Aigner, who adopted a pit bull in 2013, quickly collected thousands of signatures and lined up dozens of people to address the common council if necessary.

“Considering the reputation pit bulls get on being a ‘bully’ breed, I made sure to do my research” before adopting, Aigner said. “I knew I was going to get a lot of criticism and I knew I had to be smart when it came to this puppy. If he ended up being poorly trained, it would have been because I failed as an owner. Just as kids are raised, so are puppies. As parents, we have to teach them right from wrong, good from bad.”

Other opponents of breed-specific bans have adopted the online petition as an effective lobbying tool. A year ago, activists defeated a proposed ordinance to ban pit bulls in Medford, Oregon, after amassing more than 8,600 signatures on a Care2 petition.

“It is wrong to discriminate against a breed,” said Aigner. “If you are going to go after someone, it should be the owner for not training their dog correctly, not the breed.”

DogsBite.org is a website “dedicated to reducing serious dog attacks.” The site maintains that the number of dog bites in the United States is under-reported and that certain types of dogs — pit bulls and Rottweilers — are deadly. The group says from 2005 to 2014, pit bulls and Rottweilers caused 74 percent of the human fatalities from dog attacks. 

“Unlike other dog breeds, pit bulls frequently fail to communicate intention prior to an attack (surprise attacks), possess a lethal bite style (hold and shake) and a ruinous manner of attack (gameness),” reads a “dangerous dogs” passage on the website.

Yet, the American Veterinary Medical Association says no breed or type of dog is more dangerous than another. 

The AVMA says, “Any dog can bite, regardless of its breed, and more often people are bitten by dogs they know. It’s not the dog’s breed that determines risk — it’s the dog’s behavior, general size, number of dogs involved and the vulnerability of the person bitten that determines whether or not a dog or dogs will cause a serious bite injury. Dogs can be aggressive for all sorts of reasons. A dog that’s bitten once can bite again and a dog that’s never bitten could still bite. Don’t rely on breed stereotypes to keep yourself safe from dog bites. A dog’s individual history and behavior are much more important than its breed.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Bar Association and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also oppose breed-specific legislation. 

The ABA “urges all state, territorial and local legislative bodies and governmental agencies to adopt comprehensive breed-neutral dangerous dog/reckless owner laws that ensure due process protections for owners, encourage responsible pet ownership and focus on the behavior of both dog owners and dogs, and to repeal any breed-discriminatory or breed-specific provisions.”

In its review of the issue, the CDC notes that data collection related to bites by breed is fraught with the potential for error in identifying the type of dog, especially among mixed-breed dogs. A 2009 study supports this point, noting a significant discrepancy between visual determination of breed and DNA determination of breed.

The ASPCA’s position statement says the organization “is not aware of credible evidence that breed-specific laws make communities safer either for people or other companion animals. There is, however, evidence that such laws unfairly target responsible pet guardians and their well-socialized dogs, are inhumane and impede community safety and humane sheltering efforts.”

In its lengthy statement, the ASPCA says breed-specific laws ignore factors known to affect a dog’s tendency toward aggression: early experience, socialization, training, sex and reproductive status.

Breed-specific laws also “can cause hardship to responsible guardians of properly supervised, friendly, well-socialized dogs. … Although guardians of these dogs may have done nothing to endanger the public, they nevertheless may be required to choose between compliance with onerous regulations or forfeiture of their beloved companions,” according to the ASPCA.

States rethinking bans

In Ohio, after passage in 1987 of a law that identified pit bulls as “vicious,” some dog owners faced difficulties finding housing or securing liability insurance. Lawmakers removed the language three years ago, but a number of Ohio communities still label pit bulls as “vicious.”

Forfeiture of animals also results in crowded shelters or increases in killings by animal control. In Ohio in 2004, animal control agencies killed at least 7,400 pit bulls. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, 80 percent of the 500 to 600 dogs seized and killed under a ban on pit bull terriers are “nice, family dogs.”

Williams said, “It is heartbreaking when dogs are labeled dangerous and they really are not. … Many dogs that have been labeled ‘dangerous’ or ‘aggressive’ have been rescued or adopted and turn out to be just the best dogs ever, once they feel safe and secure. We want them to have a chance to shine, if they can.”

And animal welfare advocates stress an unintended consequence of breed-specific legislation. As one type of dog is banned, those who exploit and abuse animals train others to be aggressive, to fight.

Breed-specific laws exist in 55 Wisconsin communities, according to DogsBite.org. Thirty ordinances ban pit bulls, while other measures place restrictions on ownership of pit bulls and Rottweilers, such as prohibiting pit bulls declared “dangerous” or “vicious.”

“No good comes from discrimination, whether it’s discrimination against dogs or people,” said animal welfare advocate Shelaghla Donohue of Madison. “Instead of more communities passing bias legislation, I think Wisconsin should prohibit breed-discriminatory legislation. Probably that won’t happen anytime soon.”

States with measures against enacting breed-specific legislation include California, Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Virginia.

“The way I see it, outlawing a pit bull or a Rottweiler or a Chihuahua, for that matter, is like saying, ‘We don’t like that kind of person,’” said Green Bay animal rights advocate Laura Lippert. “And we just don’t do that.”

Said Williams, “Give pit bulls a chance, you won’t be disappointed. Help out at shelters so the dogs can be more socialized and have a chance to find homes. Ask to pet a pit bull, you will most likely end up covered in kisses.”

March Madness: Indiana, Arkansas attempt to quiet uproar

March did not go out like a lamb in Indiana, where protesters roared against a “religious liberties” measure intended to protect those who discriminate against LGBT people.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence claimed that was not the intent of the law he signed on March 26 but retreated from on April 2, with conservative Republicans following. But Pence, a former congressman and tea party politician, had signed the initial Religious Freedom Restoration Act law surrounded by Christian right leaders who, having largely lost the campaign against marriage equality, are waging a battle to make it legal to deny services, accommodations and products to LGBT people, particularly the marrying kind.

“If discrimination is not the intent of the law, then what is?” said civil rights activist Sam Bartlett of Indianapolis. “The truth is, they wanted to pass a law to allow discrimination against gays and didn’t know the backlash would be so big and so costly to the state’s economy and reputation when the eyes of the nation were upon us.”

Indianapolis is home to the NCAA and hosted the men’s Final Four basketball championship on April 4–6. NCAA president Mark Emmert had said the Indiana law needed to change and suggested that the organization could leave the state if the law wasn’t fixed.

“March Madness this year meant something else entirely,” said Bartlett, who was astounded by the vitality of the rainbow-themed demonstrations at the Capitol as Republican lawmakers advanced the legislation and then, facing condemnation and boycotts, amended the law to state that it did not authorize discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

When GOP legislators announced the changes on April 2, they stood not with religious right leaders but with corporate leaders from Eli Lilly, the Pacers and the state chamber of commerce. The Center for American Progress estimated the backlash could cost Indiana “as much as $250 million in economic activity and counting.” 

Religious freedom, license to discriminate

So-called religious freedom laws exist in 20 states and were introduced in 15 states this year, following unparalleled advances in marriage equality. Indiana’s religious liberties bill was introduced in January, just months after a federal court overturned the state ban on same-sex marriage.

Proponents of the measures claim they are fashioned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by Democrat Bill Clinton in 1993 and have argued that their purpose is to protect the rights of religious minorities.

However, the recent push really derives from the Manhattan Declaration, a manifesto drafted in 2009 by a coalition of conservative Christians pledging to resist laws requiring recognition of same-sex marriages and enabling abortions.

And Indiana’s RFRA, broader than most, was enacted in a state that still lacks civil rights legislation banning bias based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“The timing of this legislation is important to understanding its intent: The bill was introduced as a backlash reaction to achieving marriage equality for same-sex couples in Indiana,” said Jane Henegar, executive director of the ACLU of Indiana.

Civil rights activists organized a statewide campaign to defeat the bill, but the national uproar over the measure followed the governor’s signing of the initial bill.

Corporations — including Nike, Apple, Twitter, Subaru, Levi Strauss & Co., Gap, PayPal, Yelp, Salesforce, Alcoa, and Cummins — joined in the opposition. Among the first to weigh in was Angie’s List, halting an expansion in Indianapolis. “Angie’s List is open to all and discriminates against none and we are hugely disappointed in what this bill represents,” CEO Bill Oesterle said in a press statement on March 28.

Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson called the legislation “pure idiocy from a business perspective.” He also said the “notion that you can tell businesses somehow that they are free to discriminate against people based on who they are is madness.”

Hollywood stars, pro athletes and rock stars joined in the protest on social media. Bands put plans to perform in Indiana on hold. Faith-based institutions, including Reform Jews and Disciples of Christ, condemned the legislation, as did leaders of the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Teachers. And many politicians, most of them Democrats, registered outrage. Connecticut instituted a ban on government-funded travel and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wrote letters inviting about a dozen businesses to leave Indiana for Chicago.

In Wisconsin, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele personally has donated $5,000 to the ACLU of Indiana’s work to further LGBT equality and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett penned an op-ed for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, saying, “Wisconsin would be wrong to follow” Indiana and other states.

Also, Dane County Supervisors Kyle Richmond, Chuck Erickson and Andrew Schauer and Milwaukee County Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic proposed banning taxpayer-funded non-essential travel to Indiana.

“I was born and raised in Indiana and I am embarrassed,” said Richmond, who is gay. “Legalizing bigotry in the name of religion is divisive and cowardly.”

Meanwhile, defense of Indiana’s RFRA was more limited — mostly to extremist groups, such as the Traditional Values Coalition and conservative politicians hoping to become president, such as Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker, who has said he supports the RFRA in principle.

On March 31, Pence asked for an amendment clarifying the bill.

A Questionable ‘Fix’

So, as Indiana lawmakers worked on a fix, lawmakers considered similar bills in other states. On April 2, Pence also signed Indiana’s amended law, which prohibits using the measure as a legal defense for refusing to provide goods, services, facilities or accommodations based on race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or U.S. military service.

The law exempts churches and affiliated schools, along with nonprofit religious organizations.

Pence said on April 2, “However we got here, we are where we are, and it is important that our state take action to address the concerns that have been raised and move forward.”

The political madness, as the Final Four weekend arrived, appeared to be dying down, but concerns continued.

Gay rights leaders said Indiana must enact broad civil rights protections for LGBT people.

“The harm has been lessened, but we have not reached the day when LGBT Hoosiers can be assured that they can live their lives with freedom from discrimination,” said Katie Blair, campaign manager for Freedom Indiana. “It’s long past time to enact a comprehensive nondiscrimination law, and we must continue to work to ensure, once and for all, that the RFRA cannot be used to discriminate against or hurt anyone.”

The Human Rights Campaign said approximately 80 percent of Hoosiers live with no explicit protection from or recourse for LGBT discrimination under state or local law. Also, the so-called “fix” still allows a pharmacist, citing personal religious beliefs, to deny a legitimate prescription to an LGBT person seeking HIV medication, hormone therapy, or to a lesbian couple seeking fertility drugs. And the “fix” also allows a parent to sue an individual teacher for intervening when his or her child harasses another child perceived to be LGBT.

In Arkansas, the legislature sent a bill to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who, looking north to Indiana and hearing objections from Wal-Mart, asked for revisions. 

Arkansas lawmakers changed the bill to more closely mirror the 1993 federal law and it only addresses actions by the government, not by businesses or individuals. Hutchinson signed the legislation on April 2, with civil rights leaders still concerned about the potential impact.

“This new law fails to protect against the use of religion to discriminate against and harm others,” said Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas. “Religious liberty is a fundamental value that the ACLU of Arkansas has been working to uphold since 1969. We will be vigilant and ensure that the shield of religious freedom doesn’t become a sword used to harm others in the state of Arkansas.”

Bakery’s refusal to put anti-gay slur on cake not discriminatory

A Castle Rock, Colorado, religious leader said he plans to appeal after the state Civil Rights Division rejected his arguments that a bakery discriminated against his religion when it refused to make a cake with a gay slur.

The Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled recently that Azucar Bakery did not discriminate against William Jack because the baker offered to bake the cake and let the customer write his own message, which the baker considered derogatory.

Colorado ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein said that that the baker did not discriminate because she agreed to bake the cake. Silverstein said her decision not to decorate the cake was not based on the customer’s religion, but because she considered the message offensive.

Marjorie Silva, owner of Denver’s Azucar Bakery, told The Associated Press after the case was filed that she agreed to make a Bible-shaped cake, but balked when the man showed her a piece of paper with what she considered hateful words about gays that he wanted written on the cake. He also wanted the cake to have two men holding hands and an X on top of them, Silva said.

She said she would make the cake, but she declined to write his suggested messages, telling him she would give him icing and a pastry bag so he could write the words himself. Silva said the customer didn’t want that.

The state ruled that the bakery would have treated any other customer the same way.

The bakery owner did not return a phone call from the AP seeking comment on Sunday, and a phone number for Jack could not be located.

Jack said in a statement to KUSA-TV that people are trying to censor the Bible using state laws and he plans to appeal.

“It is offensive that the bakers who refused me service deemed the Bible verses I requested on two cakes discriminatory, and the Colorado Civil rights Division considered that reason enough for them to deny me service,” he said in a statement to KUSA-TV.