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Indiana religious law raises concerns

News staff and wire reports

Indianapolis — The heat over Indiana’s new religious objections law spread Friday as many businesses and organizations, including the NCAA, Big Ten Conference and a Michigan gay rights organization, pressed concerns that it could open the door to legalizing discrimination against gay people.

Use of the hashtag #boycottindiana spread across Twitter, spurred on by activists such as “Star Trek” actor George Takei, who argued that the measure opens the door to legalized discrimination against gay people. Apple CEO Tim Cook also tweeted his objections, saying he was “deeply disappointed” in the Indiana law.

The Indianapolis-based NCAA, which is holding its men’s basketball Final Four in the city next weekend, said in a statement it was examining how it might affect future events and its workforce.

The measure Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed Thursday prohibits state and local laws that “substantially burden” the ability of people — including businesses and associations — to follow their religious beliefs. Supporters of the bill say discrimination claims are overblown. They maintain courts haven’t allowed that to happen under similar laws covering the federal government and in 19 other states.

Those arguments didn’t satisfy opponents who worry the law, which will take effect in July, presents Indiana as unwelcoming and could give legal cover to businesses that don’t want to provide services to gays and lesbians.

“It strikes me as borderline cruel and inhumane,” said Darrious D. Hilmon, the new executive director of Ferndale-based Affirmations, Metro Detroit’s community center for LBGT people and allies. “Really, what’s next? Is somebody going to be able to discriminate against me again because I’m black?”

National gay-rights advocates consider the Indiana bill among the most sweeping of similar state proposals introduced as conservatives brace for a possible U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide this summer. Arkansas’ governor said he supports a similar bill that passed the Arkansas Senate on Friday despite opposition from home-state retail giant Wal-Mart.

In Michigan, some conservative Republican lawmakers are seeking a similar law to require the government to make a “compelling justification” to burden someone’s ability to exercise their religious freedoms.

A bill sponsored by former House Speaker Jase Bolger creating a Religious Freedom Restoration Act died in the Legislature’s December lame-duck session after passing the House. The bill was paired with legislation extending anti-discrimination protections to gays and lesbians in the workplace, housing and public accommodation. That legislation never made it out committee. In January, Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, reintroduced Bolger’s religious freedom bill.

The Washington-based Human Rights Campaign said Indiana lawmakers “have sent a dangerous and discriminatory message.”

“They’ve basically said, as long as your religion tells you to, it’s OK to discriminate against people despite what the law says,” said Sarah Warbelow, the group’s legal director.

Said Pence, a Republican mulling a possible 2016 presidential campaign: “This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way I would’ve vetoed it.”

Conservative groups backing the bill have said it merely seeks to prevent the government from compelling people to provide such things as catering or photography for same-sex weddings or other activities they find objectionable on religious grounds.

The Final Four is being held in Indianapolis for the seventh time since 1980, and it is scheduled to be the host again in 2021.

“We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week’s men’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in the statement. “Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.”

The Big Ten Conference, of which the University of Michigan and Michigan State University are members, also is looking into the Indiana matter. The Big Ten has held the men’s basketball tournament in Indianapolis nine times since 2002, and it again is scheduled to be held there next season. The Big Ten football championship game has been in Indianapolis all four years of its existence.

“The Big Ten Conference and its member institutions believe in promoting an inclusive environment in which athletic competition can operate free from discrimination,” the conference said in a statement Friday. “The conference is aware of the bill that was recently signed into law in the state of Indiana and will further review its impact at the next scheduled meetings of its administrators, presidents and chancellors.”

A petition, started by Wisconsin football fan Sean Burke, is circulating to get the Big Ten to move the football championship game out of the state.

Sports leagues have forced politicians’ hands before. In February 2014, the NFL threatened to move the February 2015 Super Bowl out of Arizona if it passed a bill that many considered “anti-gay.”

Arizona also was calling its bill “religious freedom” legislation, and with the NFL watching closely, Republican Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the legislation. Super Bowl XLIX was held in Glendale, Arizona, on Feb. 1.

While sports organizations have expressed concern about the developments in Indiana, some companies already have vowed to pull business from Indiana.

Soon after Pence signed the bill, founder and CEO Marc Benioff announced on Twitter that he was canceling all programs that require its customers or employees “to travel to Indiana to face discrimination.”

The San Francisco-based company bought Indianapolis-based marketing software company ExactTarget for $2.5 billion in 2013 and has kept hundreds of employees in the city. A company spokeswoman declined to elaborate on Benioff’s statement.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Friday noted the negative reaction to the Indiana law from many businesses and organizations around the country. “The signing of this bill doesn’t seem like it’s a step in the direction of equality and justice and liberty for all Americans,” he said.

At least two groups — the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and gamers’ convention organizer Gen Con — have said they would reconsider plans to hold events in Indianapolis because of the legislation.

Indiana Right to Life President and CEO Mike Fichter praised the new law, saying it would give abortion opponents legal recourse if they are pressured to support the procedure. The organization circulated an online petition to thank Pence for signing the bill.

In Michigan, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, has said the religious freedom legislation is not “a top item for the Senate” Republicans.

But the issue of whether individuals with religious beliefs against homosexuality should have a right to refuse service to gay people has taken a new turn in Michigan’s Legislature.

The Republican-controlled House narrowly passed legislation earlier this month that could empower faith-based foster care and adoption agencies to turn away gay and lesbian couples who want to adopt a child by invoking their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

The Detroit News’ Tony Paul and Chad Livengood, and Tom Davies of the Associated Press contributed.