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Ind. religious liberty ‘exclusion’ challenged

INDIANAPOLIS (BP) — If traditional marriage proponents get their way, 2016 could be the year Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) “fix” is overturned and the state reaffirms, among other freedoms, the right of business owners not to participate in same-sex weddings if doing so violates their religious convictions.

A lawsuit filed by the Indiana Family Institute (IFI) and the American Family Association (AFA) of Indiana asks a court to declare unconstitutional an amendment to the Hoosier state’s RFRA adopted last spring that extends heightened religious liberty protection to ministers as well as “church or nonprofit religious organization[s]” but not to businesses or “ideologically-conservative” groups like IFI and AFA, according to the suit.

The amendment, known as the “Exclusion and Exceptions,” was adopted by Republican legislators a week following passage of the initial Indiana RFRA and signed by GOP Gov. Mike Pence amid criticism of the original legislation from businesses, left-leaning politicians and gay rights groups.

The suit also asks the court to throw out, based on the original Indiana RFRA, nondiscrimination ordinances in Indianapolis and nearby Carmel, Ind., that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Tim Overton, a church planter in Muncie, Ind., told Baptist Press he is saddened that “many in our society see the free exercise of religion as a threat.”

Homosexual rights activists “want to use the power of government to enforce their agenda,” Overton said in written comments submitted Jan. 11. “If they succeed, many of the traditional freedoms we enjoy as Americans will vanish. For example, one of our cherished liberties is the freedom of assembly. Many homosexual activists would like to use nondiscrimination laws to force a Christian wedding planner to attend a same-sex wedding. No Christian should be compelled by government to attend a wedding that violates his or her faith.

“Freedom of speech is also endangered,” Overton said. “It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. If this is true, then paintings and photos communicate much. Images of a same-sex wedding require the event to be framed in a celebratory manner. Proverbs 2:14 warns believers to never ‘celebrate perversion.’ Services that involve speech should be given special protections in our courts. No one should be compelled by government to have their words, art or another type of creative service communicate something that violates their conscience.”

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 10 with an Indiana state court, claims the original Indiana RFRA was a just law, requiring that before government can “substantially burden” a citizen’s religious practice, it must demonstrate “a compelling governmental interest” and achieve that interest through “the least restrictive means.”

The suit, however, takes issue with the RFRA Exclusion and Exemptions because they withdraw “religious-free-exercise protection” from individuals and groups that “provide services, facilities, use of public accommodations, goods, employment, or housing to members of the general public.”

The “highly unusual manner in which the legislature first granted heightened religious-free-exercise protection to all religious ‘persons’ in RFRA, then withdrew that protection from some persons and activities” raises questions of “equal-rights protections” and requires “special justification by the government,” according to the lawsuit.

The suit continues, “All who hold religious beliefs and believe that those religious beliefs should be expressed in their actions, private and public, want and need the protections offered by constitutional protections for religious-free-exercise and the high protection offered by RFRA.” The RFRA fix “intentionally strip[s]” heightened religious liberty protection “from certain persons, such as plaintiffs, who are not within the Exceptions but hold traditional religious beliefs of the same sort as persons who are within the Exceptions.”

Moreover, “persons whose religious-free-exercise is based on the traditional biblical view of marriage and human sexuality … are stripped of RFRA protection while those of different religious views are unaffected.”

Ryan McCann, IFI director of operations and public policy, told BP the case could set a precedent for other states, 21 of which have enacted versions of RFRA.

“Legislators and activists on the left are trying to set a precedent in Indiana with the fix for other states,” McCann said. “Unfortunately, I think that’s happening somewhat. So we’re hoping to push back another way in the courts and try to find a mutual tribunal where we can get a fair day in court and raise these claims.”

McCann expressed hope that other state governments considering “legislative proposals” to restrict religious liberty will take note of the court challenge in Indiana and “think twice about moving forward and violating the First Amendment rights of their citizens.”