Op-Ed

Something’s Still Missing From Indiana’s Revised “Religious Freedom” Act

Indiana’s governor Mike Pence and state legislators did the right thing by amending the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The bill, which as presented to…

Mike Pence

Source: (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

Indiana’s governor Mike Pence and state legislators did the right thing by amending the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The bill, which as presented to Pence for signing, left an apparent loophole that would allow for discrimination based on the religious objections of say, a business owner or a service provider, for example. The LGBT community and its supporters were able to alert all of us that the legislation would allow for this type of injustice. This law was bad for everybody.

But when you read the fix to this law, which Pence signed Thursday, there seems to be — at least to me — a glaring omission.

Here’s the controversial language that got Indiana in trouble:

Synopsis: Antidiscrimination safeguards. Indicates that the law related to adjudicating a claim or defense that a state or local law, ordinance, or other action substantially burdens the exercise of religion of a person: (1) does not authorize a provider to refuse to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodations, goods, employment, or housing to any member or members of the general public; (2) does not establish a defense to a civil action or criminal prosecution for refusal by a provider to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodations, goods, employment, or housing to any member or members of the general public; and (3) does not negate any rights available under the Constitution of the State of Indiana.

Opponents argued that there were no protections for LGBT people in this language and that it would allow accommodations to be denied if a person (which can include a business or corporation in its definition) so chooses. Now here’s the revised language:

This chapter does not: (I) authorize a provider to refuse to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodations, goods, employment, or housing to any member or members of the general public on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or United States military service; (2) establish a defense to a civil action or criminal prosecution for refusal by a provider to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodations, goods, employment, or housing to any member or members of the general public on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or United States military service; or (3) negate any rights available under the Constitution of the State of Indiana.

What does not seem to exist in this new language are provisions that would prohibit discrimination against people who have been incarcerated. That means if you’ve been locked up in Indiana, anyone can say their religious beliefs allow them to bar people from opportunity like housing, education or employment. Even though religious groups have been known to extend help to those who are released from prison, anyone can say “my business is an (XYZ religion) business and we don’t deal with those types.”

This is problematic for a primary reason: like other states, there is a disproportionate number of black males who are incarcerated. According to The Sentencing Project, Indiana’s black-white prison ratio was 5.5:1 in 2011. And according to a 2010 report from the Indiana Commission on the Social Status of Black Males:

Numbers of incarcerated Black males between the ages of 21-50 remain high at 38.2% [Indiana Department of Corrections, 2010]. The current recidivism rate, defined as an offender who has returned to the Indiana Department of Correction (IDOC) within 3 years of being released from IDOC supervision, remains at a high percentage amongst Black males at 47.1% compared to 38.4% overall [IDOC, 2010]. This means that nearly half of all incarcerated Black men in Indiana will return to prison.

So in Indiana, when looking at the big picture, people still have a way of discriminating against a group of people who are left at a disadvantage: black men who have a record. This is actually a nationwide problem, but the reason I’m focusing on it here is because it’s time to start — somewhere — advocating for a group of people who are vulnerable to fall into the same vicious socioeconomic cycles, poverty, illness, crime, etc. Laws should work to protect them as well.

In other words, it’s time to advocate for legislation that helps, rather than hinders black men.

Now Indiana actually has a provision that would give a hand to ex-offenders, again a group that has a disproportionate number of black men. In 2012 the state legislature passed a measure that allows non-violent offenders to have their criminal records sealed — but they have to wait eight years after they get out of the joint to petition for it.

Taking things to Ferguson, Missouri, the Department of Justice found egregious examples of that city with policies designed to make criminals out of people who are too broke to pay traffic tickets. This was targeted at citizens of a mostly black town.

In the broad scope of things, perhaps its time to start looking at creating laws in each state that prohibit people, corporations, housing agencies and institutions from barring people who have paid their debt to society and have been properly rehabilitated. Black men in almost every state disproportionately find themselves in this category and when opportunities fail to materialize, brothers can wind up in the same trap and have no choice but to revert to crime in order to survive.

This creates an opening for overpolicing our communities and the repeated incidents of deadly clashes with police that we’ve seen in the news over the past year.

This isn’t an attempt to co-opt a legitimate argument that the LGBT community has with Indiana’s law, which has now been augmented because people were brave enough to their mouths about it. But if we black men should learn anything from this it’s that laws, and there are many of them — from “Three Strikes” to voter suppression measures — should not be allowed to stand.

It’s time for brothers to do their own advocacy.

Madison J. Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based multimedia journalist specializing in urban issues and criminal justice. He writes for NewsOne on the subject of Black males in America. Follow him on Twitter:@madisonjgray

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Something’s Still Missing From Indiana’s Revised “Religious Freedom” Act