2015 – The Year of WTF?! 

How politics and discrimination defined a year

click to enlarge Protests against Gov. Mike Pence became a regular occurrence in 2015. - PHOTO BY MARK A. LEE
  • Protests against Gov. Mike Pence became a regular occurrence in 2015.
  • Photo by Mark A. Lee

According to the Chinese zodiac calendar 2015 has been the year of the sheep. But in political terms, both locally and nationally, it’s been more like the year of the jackass.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act

The year rang in with red flags heeding warnings of things yet to come. State Sen. Scott Schneider (R-Indianapolis) announced at the end of 2014 that he was working on drafting a Religious Freedom Restoration Act for Indiana.

Several people alluded to the notion that Schneider’s RFRA bill was fueled in part by the negative reaction from certain fundamentalist groups unhappy with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to hear Indiana’s case regarding marriage equality. The decision ended the debate and Indiana reluctantly joined numerous other states in recognizing the marriages of same-sex couples and allowing new same-sex marriages to take place.

The concept of RFRA legislation specifically allowing those opposed to the LGBTQ community to openly justify their discrimination became instantly disconcerting for organizations like the ACLU of Indiana and Freedom Indiana. The idea that the proposed legislation could be interpreted as discriminatory also raised red flags with large corporations like Eli Lilly, Cummins, and Eskenazi Health. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce determined even the slightest image of discrimination could be bad for business for the entire state.
click to enlarge During the RFRA debate, those in support gathered at the statehouse to support religious freedom. - PHOTO BY MARK A. LEE
  • During the RFRA debate, those in support gathered at the statehouse to support religious freedom.
  • Photo by Mark A. Lee
The opposition voice, however, was somewhat quiet and contained to committee hearings once the bill was filed and the Senate began the legislative process of moving the bill forward. At the very least, the drumbeat wasn’t loud enough to get too much media attention. Senate Democrats were paying attention and tried desperately to amend the bill or convince their colleagues to dismiss the bill entirely. When the bill got to third reading on the Senate floor, Sen. Karen Tallian tried to sound the alarm about the potential pitfalls of the legislation. Unfortunately the bill sailed smoothly through the Senate and moved without pause on to the Indiana House.

Once the bill got to the House, the opposition voices grew louder. The realization that this potentially damaging legislation could actually become law became frighteningly real. Businesses saw the bill as a hindrance in recruiting quality talent. Freedom Indiana planned rallies during committee meetings to draw attention to the “ license to discriminate” aspect of the bill —specifically targeting the LGBTQ community.

By the time the bill moved through committee and onto the House floor for a vote, opposition to the legislation had grown to a fever pitch. Rallies against the legislation became a daily occurrence. Some businesses with plans to expand in Indiana threatened to cancel those plans and rethink their business in the Hoosier state. Conventions, like Gen-Con, threatened to take their business elsewhere. Media outlets were inundated with statements from businesses, organizations, CEOs and presidents condemning the bill and warning of the potential harm to Indiana.
click to enlarge Many protested against RFRA, pointing out the dangers of discrimination it created. - PHOTO BY MARK A. LEE
  • Many protested against RFRA, pointing out the dangers of discrimination it created.
  • Photo by Mark A. Lee
Despite the numerous threats and warnings, the bill passed the House almost completely along party lines. Only five Republicans broke ranks and voted against the measure. With only a few minor amendments added to the legislation the Senate voted to concur within 24 hours and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was sent to Governor Pence to sign, veto, or sit on his desk and become law without his signature.

Pence signed the bill in a private ceremony. A photo from that ceremony showed Pence surrounded by several people of faith and the fundamentalist leaders that had expressed their outrage with the marriage equality decision in 2014. Those were the folks who spoke in favor of RFRA when it was just a proposed idea for the very reason why it was getting such pushback from the public.

From the moment Pence signed the legislation, he became the face of Indiana’s new RFRA law and the face of perceived discrimination in our state.

And then like the levies of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans, all hell broke loose.

Companies that had threatened to suspend or halt business activity in Indiana made good on those threats. Numerous states and cities banned government-sponsored business travel to Indiana. Musicians canceled concerts and Hollywood stars took to social media to rant about that awful Indiana. Late night talk shows used Mike Pence and Indiana for material in opening monologues. National media outlets set up camp in Indiana covering the story from every angle imaginable.

Indiana was painted with a gigantic scarlet D that could be seen from the International Space Station while a big gaping wound bled out taxes, income, and tourism dollars.

Pence tried to stick his finger in the dam by going on television to explain that Indiana wasn’t the horrible place being portrayed everywhere. The interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week was supposed to help fix the situation and rebuild Indiana’s image in the eyes of the country. His refusal to answer a direct question simply turned a bad situation into a nightmare.

What happened next was the equivalent to a dollar store bandage in the form of Senate Bill 50. The original bill was actually written as a way to clarify who could challenge a candidate’s eligibility to seek office. The bill had passed out the Senate and the House and had been sent back to the Senate where it was sitting on a desk waiting to be called for a concurrence vote. When legislative leaders began looking for ways to “fix” the damage that had been done to the state from RFRA’s passage, SB 50 — a bill of little to no consequence — was sitting there. So its original intent was completely stripped and language was added as an addendum to RFRA.

The “fix” tried to add language to RFRA that basically said religious freedom couldn’t be used as a reason to do what the public perceived it could do — Indiana businesses couldn’t use RFRA to discriminate against someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

While the language in the “fix” was enough to settle the business community, it also revealed the shortcomings in Indiana’s laws that still leave LGTBQ people vulnerable to treatment as second-class citizens in places where non-discrimination ordinances including LGBTQ did not exist. The LGBTQ community and its advocates are determined to correct that hole in Indiana Code in the upcoming 2016 legislative session. Supporters of LGBTQ civil rights are also planning ahead a lot earlier than they did with RFRA. The stage has already been set for a loud and lively debate to prohibit discrimination of any sort based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

One side effect from the RFRA debate that has nothing to do with the LGBTQ community is the First Church of Cannabis. The church opened its doors to a new congregation July 1st and held its first service on the hour RFRA officially took effect. Church founder and grand Poobah Bill Levin took his deeply held beliefs in the power and spirit of cannabis and built a church around it, complete with doctrine and structure. The church continues to this day with services held every Wednesday. Levin and the church also filed a lawsuit against the state claiming the state’s criminal laws regarding marijuana possession are a substantial burden to the church’s exercise of its religion — cannabis is considered a holy sacrament in the church —and thereby violate the state’s RFRA law.

The case is still pending in Marion County Superior Court.

The presidential primary

Poor Mike Pence.

He had such dreams for 2015.

And they were all drowned in a big ole’ bucket of discrimination.

Although 2015 was an election year on the municipal level, it was also the pre-election year for the upcoming presidential elections. Pence opened the year saying that by the end of the General Assembly session, he would announce his intentions for 2016 — whether or not he would make a presidential bid or run for re-election as Indiana’s governor.

Pence had certainly set the state for a presidential bid. He spent the 2014 holidays in Israel, was vocal on several national issues from the governor’s seat and made reference when ever possible to his combination of congressional-state executive experience.

Unfortunately for Pence, the appetizer of JustIn — a proposed government “news” agency for state government news that was quickly squashed — and a big main course of RFRA proved to be too much for his presidential chops to handle. The governor’s bid for the White House was over before it could even begin.

Even without Pence, the presidential clown car primary field filled up quickly with as many as 37 people expressing interest in the nation’s top executive spot. The number of candidates to officially declare as Republican presidential candidates matches a full field for the Indianapolis 500 at 33 people. The court of public opinion — with the help of media controlled debates — have thinned the noticeable herd to the top 13 candidates that are showing any traction in the polls.
click to enlarge donald-trump_3372655b.jpg
Interestingly, on the Democratic side 19 people expressed interested in running for president including Vice President Joe Biden, who later announced he would not pursue the presidency. Out of the top five candidates who showed up in polling as possible contenders, only three remain — Former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chaffee and former Virginia Senator Jim Webb officially withdrew from the race after the first debate.

The Democrat candidates have managed to stay on point with the issues and not attack each other.

The GOP candidates, on the other hand, have nearly come to blows making their debates and interactions look like a tank full of male betta fish.

The Republican presidential primary race filled the back end of 2015 with a lot of rhetoric as candidates claw their way to the top with the hopes of becoming the nominee for their party. And real estate mogul/reality TV star Donald Trump has dominated most of the conversation. From building a huge wall at the border to curb illegal immigration to expelling all Muslims from the country, Trump’s commentary on the state of the nation put all of his opponents on the defensive and pushed them all out of the spotlight.

The year of the sheep was in no way quiet like a lamb.

2016 is the Chinese year of the monkey.

The question remains whether the year will have the child-like innocence of Curious George or the violent near-anarchy of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

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About The Author

Amber Stearns

Amber Stearns

Amber Stearns was born, raised, and educated right here in Indianapolis. She holds a B.S. in Communications from the University of Indianapolis (1995). Following a 20-year career in radio news in Indiana, Amber joined NUVO as News Editor in 2014.

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