By Miriam Raftery
April 2, 2015 (San Diego’s East County—Religious freedom laws that could allow businesses to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers are stirring controversy Indiana and Arkansas. But now some heavyweight opposition has emerged, including Wal-Mart and other corporations as well as sports organizations including NASCAR and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
Walmart, the world’s largest corporation, is based in Arkansas. Hours after Walmart’s CEO, Doug McMillion, urged Governor Asa Hutchinson to veto the bill, the Arkansas governor convened a press conference to announce that he will not sign the measure unless it is amended to prevent discrimination. Walmart has nondiscrimination policies for gender identity and even offers health insurance benefits to same-sex marriage partners.
In Indiana, after Republican Governor Mike Pence signed his state’s religious freedom bill into law, CEOs of major companies threatened to pull their business out of the Hoosier state. Those include Bill Oesterle, CEO of Angie’s List, who said he would halt plans for a $40 million expansion in Indianapolis.
Apple CEO Tim Cook criticized the Indiana law in an Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post, noting that it sparked a “very dangerous” wave of legislation in several states.
The NCAA is based in Indiana. Charles Barkley, an analyst with the NCAA and former NBA player, called the law “unacceptable” adding, “As long as anti-gay legislation exists in any state, I strongly believe big events such as the Final Four and Super Bowl should not be held in those states’ cities,” USA Today reports.
NASCAR, which hosts the Indianapolis 500 in Indiana, also issued a statement opposing the legislation, as did the National Basketball Association, or NBA.
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican, at the urging of Democratic gay Councilmember Todd Gloria, said he would support a ban on travel for city officials to Indiana, after similar boycotts were announced by several other major cities.
Governor Pence of Indiana has since stated he would seek an amendment to clarify the law to prevent discrimination, but has not provided details.
Supporters contend that business owners should not have to provide services such as flowers for gay weddings if it offends their religious beliefs. Some argue that denying religious rights could be a slippery slope; should a Jewish baker be forced to bake a cake with a swastika on it, for example?
But opponents point out that the history of protecting religious minorities in the U.S. does have limits—and that Congress itself passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the 90s that applies only when no third party will be injured. In the case of the Arkansas and Illinois bills, customers denied service based on a business owner’s religious views, whether those customers are gay or Jewish or Muslim or any other group, could suffer harm.
The state’s actions would provide broader religious freedoms than the Supreme Court extended in the Hobby Lobby case, when the high court majority found that a small, family-owned company could deny contraception coverage to employees based on religious beliefs.
According to Columbia Law School professor Katherine Franke, the Arkansas and Indiana bills would go further, allowing corporations of any size to discriminate by claiming religious beliefs.
But discrimination can also have a backlash—and a counter backlash, as the owner of Memories Pizza learned. After the owner announced that she would refuse to provide pizza for a gay wedding, her Yelp rating took a plunge with hundreds of negative reviews posted. But when the owner spoke of possibly shutting down, an online fundraising effort swiftly raised $20,000 from supporters of her stance.
The controversy has emerged as an issue on the campaign trail.
Several Republican presidential contenders have come out in support of the bills, however. Florida Governor Jeb Bush told a radio show host that Indiana’s law “is simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs” and “to be people of conscience.” Florida Senator Mark Rubio also voiced support for the bill.
Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton, however, urged the Arkansas governor to veto the measure in his state, saying it would permit “unfair discrimination” against gay and lesbian people.
The vocal opposition to the bill from such normally conservative groups as NASCAR and Walmart, a major funder of the Republican Party, has led even some Republicans to urge that the GOP adapt to changing times.
Tim Pawlenty, a Republican and former Governor of Minnesota, told CNN that Walmart’s actions “foreshadow where the Republican Party will need to move.” He called for the party to adopt policies to prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians in jobs, housing and public accommodations.
Support for gay rights has gained ground even in the conservative Midwest. Moreover a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 59% of Americans now support same sex marriage.