Earlier today, Indiana governor Mike Pence hastily called for the state legislature to pass a law clarifying that his state’s universally pilloried Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not give carte blanche to discriminate against anyone–including gays and lesbians–on religious grounds. This came almost exactly 48 hours after he steadfastly vowed on national television that no such changes would be made. What changed from Sunday to today? Well, it’s hard not to believe that the final straw was a not-so-gentle push from his state’s largest newspaper, The Indianapolis Star. This morning’s edition led with a scathing front-page editorial demanding that the state legislature pass a human rights law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Want to know just how upset The Star’s editorial board was with this law? It not only moved this editorial to the front page–a rarity for any big-city paper–but used a three-inch headline that made its stance known in no uncertain terms: ‘FIX THIS NOW.’ To The Star’s mind, RFRA has done “enormous harm” to Indiana, and the damage will only get worse unless Pence and the legislature take “bold action”–and soon. If RFRA remains on the books as originally enacted, The Star argues, it will not only ruin Indiana’s image as “a state that embraces people of diverse backgrounds,” but will make it harder to attract jobs and workers.
The Star does not believe repealing the law–as the Democrats in the legislature have demanded–is a realistic option. Not only there are many Hoosiers who have “a genuine desire to protect religious freedom,” but it does not think repealing the law will “move the state forward.” At the same time, it believes that it is possible for a state human rights law to co-exist with RFRA. It points out that neighboring Illinois has a religious freedom law on the books, but also gives LGBT residents protected status. As The Star sees it, this law has put Indiana in “a state of crisis”–one that can only end if the state’s leaders move quickly to ensure that “all Hoosiers have strong protections against discrimination.”
How strongly does The Star feel about this? It’s started a hashtag campaign, “#WeAreIndiana,” to let the rest of the world know that Indiana does not discriminate. At least one state agency seems to have taken up the chant, based on this tweet from the state Office of Tourism Development’s official Twitter account:
ALL are welcome here. #WeAreIndiana
? Visit Indiana (@VisitIndiana) March 31, 2015
The Star has also provided accompanying Facebook profile pictures and cover pictures for those who want to join in the campaign. The message is obvious–The Star sees this as an issue on which there is no other side. When you consider the numerous religious right leaders who have stated that this law was indeed intended to give legal sanction to discrimination, it’s hard not to agree with The Star.
As bold as this is, it’s even more so when you put it in historical context. For most of its history, The Star has been a strongly Republican paper. From 1944 to 2000, it was owned by the Pulliam family, maternal relatives of former Vice President Dan Quayle. However, a little digging reveals that the paper endorsed Lyndon Johnson in 1964–one of only three times in the last half-century that it hasn’t endorsed a Republican for president; it didn’t endorse anyone at all in 2008 and 2012. When you combine that with today’s editorial, it’s hard not to think that this paper’s brand of Republicanism is of the old-school “Main Street” variety, as opposed to the tea party and religious right variety espoused by Pence.
From what I know about Indiana, it’s one of the few states where a newspaper endorsement or editorial can still move the needle. That’s why it seems pretty obvious that this editorial is what forced Pence’s hand. He could blow off all the criticism from across the nation. He could have even dismissed the criticism from Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard; while Ballard is a Republican like Pence, he leads a city that has undergone a dramatic transformation from red to blue since the dawn of the new millennium, and it’s not likely that Ballard could have backed this law and kept his job. However, when the state’s largest newspaper–one that has historically been very Republican–says this law is a disaster, there was no way that Pence could possibly ignore it. Now let’s hope the legislature does take The Star’s advice and fix this terrible law.