By Adam Weber.
Indiana Governor Mike Pence has been making national headlines these last few days as he has staunchly defended his state’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The law, which will become effective in July, seeks to protect individual religious freedom by allowing business owners to withhold services to which they are morally opposed. The new law has triggered widespread outrage throughout the country from opponents who believe that it will promote discrimination against members of the LGBT community. The hashtag #BoycottIndiana is currently trending on Twitter, as activists are threatening to suspend commercial relations with state businesses until the law is repealed.
The Indiana law closely resembles the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed by President Clinton in 1993, as well as multiple state-level laws that seek to promote religious liberty for business owners. There is, however, an important difference between the 1993 federal law and the current Indiana law. Clinton’s RFRA, along with many state-level laws, contained important provisions designed to safeguard against unfair discrimination. In Indiana, anti-discrimination laws do not protect sexual orientation, so whatever provisions the law contains would fail to include the LGBT community. Furthermore, in a recent interview, Governor Mike Pence has made clear that he has no plans to include sexual orientation under the anti-discrimination umbrella.
Despite the harsh outcry against the Indiana law, Governor Pence has staunchly defended its purpose and has given no inclination of plans to amend it. Pence is playing the religious card in his defense of the controversial law, asserting that the law seeks to protect individual religious liberty above all else. But this angle is unwise. Religion, which inherently brings about controversy in almost any debate context, should be left out of the equation entirely. The argument Pence should be making is an economic one. The United States, and more specifically the Republican Party, prides itself on its free market principles. In such a market, the consumers should dictate the success of a business. That is, if the consumers feel that a business is not satisfying their demand, they will go somewhere else, and that business will either be forced to change its policies or it will cease to exist. Discrimination should not play a role if economic incentives are properly taken into account.
Opponents of the legislation, however, have argued that the economic argument does not hold because the LGBT community is too small to have a tangible impact on businesses’ bottom lines. As a result, business owners will discriminate against them. While it may be true that the LGBT community may not be large enough to take down entire businesses, those who support the LGBT cause make up a much more substantial segment of the population. The trending hashtag #BoycottIndiana is just one example of this. However, I would encourage those who tweet this hashtag to boycott only those businesses in Indiana that discriminate, not Indiana as a whole. Government need not intervene, but rather the free market forces should be left to make their impact. So if business owners want to refuse service to gay customers knowing that a large portion of the population may boycott their services, they should be free to do so. Religion will only pay the rent for so long. Critics are wrong to say this law promotes discrimination and Governor Pence is wrong to say that it promotes religious freedom. The only thing this law promotes is rational economic decision-making in a free market.
The Indiana Governor’s approach to the controversial law is nothing new. In fact, it is a symptom of a platform that has plagued Republicans in the twenty first century and will continue to lose them elections if they do not make a change. The religious argument, which may have worked well for Republicans in the past, has become outdated and unpopular among a significant chunk of the population. Young people find it unappetizing, LGBT supporters find it discriminatory, and many others are simply unconvinced. The GOP therefore should stick to its strength: the economic argument. In a number of polls, Republicans outperform Democrats on their ability to handle the economy. So why do they continue to play the religious card when they are sitting on a winning lottery ticket? The answer may be unclear, but this much is certain: if Republicans want to remain relevant in this century and attract new voters in the future, they must ease off on the social issues and develop a new platform focused on the economy.