Controversy in Indiana, Victory in Nevada

By Sheila Freed

There has been a lot of news coverage the past several days about Indiana. The legislature there passed and the governor signed a new law designed to protect religious freedom. The backlash has been immediate and significant, because the bill is seen as discriminatory against the LGBT community and potentially other groups. Several large corporations who do business in Indiana have said they will change their plans because of this law, and the result will be lost jobs and lost revenue to the state. But for an upswell of public concern — including a pushback in the media and among its voters — Nevada could have seen the same scenario play out here.

Assembly Bill 277 was introduced in the Nevada Legislature on March 12, 2015. The next day it was referred to the Assembly Judiciary Committee. As of April 2, the bill had apparently died with no action. The “Nevada Protection of Religious Freedom Act” was nearly identical to the Indiana law. Defenders of the Indiana law said it’s just like a federal law passed in 1993, but in fact Indiana’s new law, and what could have been Nevada law, go much farther. Both say that a “person” has the right to practice religion free of government interference. However the definition of “person” which is specifically included in the proposed statute is a “natural person; or any form of business or social organization or other nongovernmental legal entity, whether or not the organization or legal entity is created, organized, or operated for profit.” The backlash in Indiana and potentially in Nevada is that this definition allows businesses to discriminate based on a claimed religious belief. The infamous Citizens United decision said that corporations have a right to free speech. This legislation effectively gives corporations freedom of religion as well. (Does that mean they have a conscience? Doubtful.)

There are a number of states that have similar “religious freedom” laws, most being in the Deep South. The Arkansas legislature just passed such a law, and even Wal Mart, based in Bentonville, Arkansas, is urging the governor not to sign it. Passage of AB 277 would have had huge implications for the tourist/hospitality industry in Nevada, and could very well have negated all the incentives the state has given to Tesla and other businesses to bring them here. But, more measured minds prevailed. Our legislators not only observed and took seriously Indiana’s ill-considered passing of their own bill; they did the right thing and left Nevada’s to die.

That’s advocacy in action. With so many potentially damaging bills coming up for committee vote or full-on assembly or senate vote as the 2015 session enters its second half, let’s assure our voices keep being heard.

— with contributions from Vic Williams

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