The state of Indiana made news this week when Governor Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law that claims to protect businesses and individuals from prosecution for refusing service based on one’s religious beliefs. But many suspect that it will also allow businesses to refuse service to certain individuals or groups by claiming religious beliefs.
There are a lot of details still being debated, but critics of the measure say it opens the door for discrimination, specifically discrimination of homosexuals, a group without any legal protections in Indiana.
The law, and the debate around the law, is multifaceted, and there are implications for many different kinds of businesses. But merchants are on the front lines.
It was a retailer that first opened the door to this law. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby could refuse to provide medical coverage based on the owner’s religious convictions, it opened the door for for-profit groups to exert religious freedom as a reason to create policy. And it’s the fear of many that Indiana’s law will allow businesses to refuse service to certain groups.
A boycott of Indiana has been called for and two large companies with a business interest or a presence in the state, have said they will no longer pursue new developments or physical expansion there. And several organizations, including Salesforce and the City of Seattle, have said they will not allow employees to travel to Indiana on business.
Fellow Forbes contributor and Indiana native Bob Cook, suggests that youth sports teams should avoid playing in the state in an effort to get the law repealed. “I’m sick as a native Hoosier to have the stain of this bill defining a land I hold dear,” writes Cook. “Sick enough to make me tell anyone in youth sports — until that law is gone, don’t go there.”
Clearly emotions are running high and many retailers are weighing whether to take a position. Most will likely stay silent, but many have in the past clearly voiced their support on equality issues. Some, like Target and pasta maker Barilla, have been the object of a boycott. Others including Walmart and Starbucks have come out clearly on the side of equal rights.
Then there’s the new and growing coalition of independent merchants in Indiana that have signed on to their own group, Open for Service, to let customers know that everyone is welcome in their businesses.
Indiana resident Josh Driver founded Open For Service and launched a website on March 11. Since then, Driver has gotten more than 2,000 businesses registered from Indiana, 26 other states and three countries: Australia, Canada and the U.K.
“Situations like the one Indiana has gone through are popping up in other states, and people might not have known [about it],” explained Driver.
Open For Service sends interested merchants a sticker for their window that reads: “This business serves everyone.” There’s a $10 fee for each sticker and Driver has already raised $50,000 for SCORE, a not-for-profit he founded to “help fund future open-minded businesses and organizations.” The group will have a directory of registered businesses posted by next week.
The idea, really, is to counteract the growing movement to boycott Indiana businesses with a show of strength by merchants opposed to the RFRA. And while there have been some calls and emails from groups opposed to the Open For Service message, those have been very few, said Driver.
But there have also been calls from some national chains. And while Driver tells me he isn’t allowed to name names or discuss details, these companies have reached out to talk to him and voice support.
There could be Open For Service signs in more than just the mom and pop shops soon.
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