Governor Wolf Urged to Do More in Response to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act [Updated]

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Photo by Jeff Fusco

UPDATE: A representative from Wolf’s office, responded to the original article with this statement: “What happened in Indiana is wrong, and Governor Wolf knows we need to advance equality right here in Pennsylvania. Indiana’s actions should serve as a call for Pennsylvania to pass non-discrimination legislation right now. All people—regardless of sexual orientation—should be treated equally under Pennsylvania law. This fundamental right is essential, and it is the very principle on which our Commonwealth was founded by William Penn, who envisioned a Pennsylvania that is open, diverse, and inclusive for all people. Now is the time for real progress.”

ORIGINAL: Members of Pennsylvania’s LGBT Equality Caucus in Harrisburg hand-delivered a letter to Governor Tom Wolf this afternoon in response to the anti-gay Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in Indiana.

The letter, signed by Senators Daylin Leach, Vincent Hughes and Larry Farnese and Representative Dan Frankel, urges Wolf to “to stand with the people of Indiana and the nation in making it clear that this sort of law is unacceptable.”

Until an online town hall event yesterday, Wolf hadn’t spoken publicly about RFRA. At that event he said that he has “continued to support equal protection for people in the LGBT community in Pennsylvania,” and called equal protection “absolutely essential.”

Words are one thing, but the LGBT Equality Caucus is asking for action. In the closing paragraphs of their letter, they write “While many of our municipalities have passed their own anti-discrimination ordinances, many of our citizens still have no legal protection against the sort of bigotry that results in people being denied service by private companies. We urge you to redouble your efforts to work with the legislature to pass an [LGBT anti-discrimination] bill that you have already said you will sign.”

Read the full letter below.

Dear Governor Wolf,

We write this open letter to you today in our capacity as members of the Pennsylvania LGBT Equality Caucus.

The state of Indiana recently enacted into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2015. You may have read claims that over a dozen others state and the federal government have laws that are similar to Indiana’s new statute. On behalf of the community we strive to represent, we want to be clear that these claims are false.

The Indiana statute differs from federal law and the statutes in all but one of the other states in a material and dramatic way. The other statutes that purport to protect religious freedom only apply to transactions between the government and an individual. So, for example, those statutes would apply if a state Department of Corrections made a Muslim prisoner shave his beard in a way inconsistent with his religious beliefs. In that instance, the prisoner could invoke the statute to protect his religiously-based right to grow his beard.

In contrast, the Indiana statute applies to transactions between individuals and private, for-profit entities. This means that if a restaurant owner has religious objections to serving a gay person, or an African-American, or a Jewish person, the restaurant owner could refuse those individuals service. In fact, Indiana’s Speaker of the House, a Republican, said this weekend that a business owner could actually place a “Gays Not Welcome” sign in the business’s window.

This new law is tantamount to a resurrection of Jim Crow. It flies in the face of all the progress our nation has made on civil rights issues. Although any group can be victimized by this new statute, we know that the catalyst for it was the expansion of gay rights in recent years. Thus, as members of the LGBT Equality Caucus, we feel we have heightened standing to raise this issue.

If this law stands in Indiana, it is likely to metastasize to other states fairly quickly. Just yesterday the Arkansas legislature passed a similar bill. Governor, we urge you to stand with the people of Indiana and the nation in making it clear that this sort of law is unacceptable.

Here in Pennsylvania, while we do not have the sort of aggressive endorsement of discrimination that the Indiana law represents, we still do not have a statewide anti-discrimination law that covers members of the LGBT community. While many of our municipalities have passed their own anti-discrimination ordinances, many of our citizens still have no legal protection against the sort of bigotry that results in people being denied service by private companies. We urge you to redouble your efforts to work with the legislature to pass a bill that you have already said you will sign.

Governor Wolf, you are seen as a great champion of civil rights. There is nothing more consistent with your long history in this regard than taking a stand against this horrific and dangerous injustice.

Thank you for your consideration of this important matter.

It should be noted, there has been no LGBT anti-discrimination bill introduced in the current legislative session.

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