Less than a week after the US Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide in a landmark ruling for LGBT rights, Indiana enacted a controversial "religious freedom" law Wednesday, which for the past eight months has divided the state and nation over its potential to allow discrimination against gays and lesbians.
After mass protests and threats to boycott the state this spring, Indiana's Republican-dominated legislature amended the original bill a month after it was signed for the first time by the governor in late March. The amendments sought to prohibit businesses from using religious freedom as an excuse to not provide services, goods, facilities, or accommodations to specific groups, and to quell the controversy the original bill had created. But while the uproar in Indiana has since abated, activists say issues of discrimination against the LGBT community still remain unresolved across many states in the US.
"Too many people across the country don't realize that even with marriage equality; a couple could get married Saturday, on Monday they could go to work and put their wedding photo on their desk, and then be fired," said Jim Obergefell, whose petition was among cases brought by couples in four states that helped inform the Supreme Court's 5-4 gay marriage ruling last Friday.
"We don't have those constitutional protections that other Americans enjoy," Obergefell told VICE News. "We could lose our homes, our jobs, there's issues with credit, with jury duty. There are so many ways that we are still discriminated against."
Obergefell's case originated when he filed a suit against his home state of Ohio after it failed to recognize his name on the death certificate of his husband, John Arthur, who died in 2013, just months after the pair legally wed in Maryland. At the time, gay marriage was permitted there, but not in Ohio. When the case reached the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals, a judge upheld Ohio's ban on gay marriage, and similar bans in three other states. The cases from those four states later merged into the Obergefell v. Hodges petition, which appeared before the Supreme Court.
On the day of the decision, one of the other petitioners from the case in Michigan, April DeBoer, told VICE News that the ruling would give her and her partner, Jayne Rowse, and their four children legal protections they didn't previously have.
"Just small things like not worrying about losing...insurance for us, and having to worry about willing our properties to each other," she said.
But those protections aren't automatically guaranteed across many states. In the days after the high court's ruling, the conservative backlash against the decision led Obergefell to travelled to Texas, where the state's Attorney General Ken Paxton and state Senator and Republican presidential contender Ted Cruz were actively pushing government workers to defy the court's decision and prevent it from being upheld.
Although there is no question that states must adopt Supreme Court decisions immediately, Paxton claimed the Obergefell decision "stops at the door of the First Amendment and our laws protecting religious liberty." He claimed three different protections for government employees' religious freedoms under the Constitution, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs) and Texas's own RFRA.
Kermit Roosevelt, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, wrote in an op-ed on CNN that the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act "cannot limit the force of the Supreme Court constitutional decision."
"According to the Supreme Court, the First Amendment offers no protection against generally applicable laws that regulate conduct rather than belief," he wrote. "The requirement to allow same-sex couples to marry is general and pertains to conduct; it cannot be resisted on First Amendment grounds."
Obergefell said Wednesday that freedom of religion is still protected by the constitution, but LGBT rights are not, and so it is "frustrating" and "disappointing" to see religious conservatives reflexively rushing to propose religious freedom and so-called "conscience" laws around the country, to preserve their rights, at the expense of lesbian and gay people.
"They are very thinly disguised bills to discriminate against the LGBT community, no matter what [officials] say," he said, adding that he believes "spiritual belief and being gay are not irreconcilable."
"There are plenty of religious organizations and churches that believe in equality and believe in our right to marry the person we love," he said.
Texas is among more than two dozen states that currently don't have laws to protect gay and lesbian people from being discriminated against or getting fired, denied renting an apartment, or adopting a child, for example. Indiana is another.
Some activists are now taking the energy from the nationwide fight for marriage equality and focusing it on calls for all states to adopt anti-discrimination protections for their LGBT communities. Some are calling for Indiana to set the stage, considering it is one of the most recent states to pass and enact its RFRA. Advocates are also closely watching for signals of discrimination in the Hoosier State in coming days as the legislation takes effect.
"I don't think we're going to have this resolved until we pass a full nondiscrimination law statewide for LGBT Hoosiers," Katie Blair, the campaign manager for Freedom Indiana, told reporters. "We've got to put our money where our mouth is and show the country that we're a welcoming place for all."
So far, authorities' responses to promoting equal rights in Indiana have been limited to the local level. In the last two months, at least half a dozen local governments have added "sexual orientation and gender identity" protections to anti-discrimination ordinances, the Chicago Tribune reported.
But other organizations, such as the National LGBTQ Task Force, are focusing on a federal push, and are looking to get a comprehensive anti-discrimination law on the books at the national level.
Now is the time to once again pursue a comprehensive national anti-discrimination legislation to protect LGBTQ people," the group's executive director, Rea Carey, told VICE News. "While the marriage equality ruling provides valuable — and in some cases life saving — protections, it does not attend to all of the needs or issue facing LGBTQ people."
Obergefell said he's ready to get on board with any collective actions on nondiscrimination laws, after a taking a short breather and "going somewhere to relax."
"At this point I'm figuring out what my life is going to look like," he told VICE News Wednesday. "I think about my life before all of this and I'm not sure I can go back to that, at least not completely. I've discovered it's really important for me to be involved in something bigger than I am, something that's more important than I am, so I'm committed. I'm going to be active in continuing the fight for civil rights."
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