In Indiana, an uncomfortable turn in the spotlight

In Indiana, an uncomfortable turn in the spotlight

The talk at Rabbi Michael Friedland’s seder table in South Bend, Ind., was about Memories Pizza in the small Indiana town of Walkerton. Not that the celebrants already had tired of unleavened food — rather, they were bemused at how the restaurant owner’s stand in favor of the state’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act was turned into a windfall.

“The owner said that if someone asked them to cater a gay wedding, they wouldn’t do it,” said Friedland, who leads Conservative Sinai Synagogue. A four-day crowdfunding campaign in support of the pizzeria, set up by conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s Blaze TV network, raised $842,387.

“Someone joked that the synagogue should come out in favor of discriminating against gays, and we could raise almost a million dollars, too,” Friedland said. “Somebody else asked who would go to a pizza parlor to cater a wedding.”

The catering question was hypothetical, and the pizzeria’s owner said they would serve gay couples in the restaurant.

But the national attention that focused on Indiana after Republican Gov. Mark Pence signed the bill into law on March 26 has been something that Hoosiers — and the state’s 17,000 Jews — are unaccustomed to. The fact that in the face of national outrage the law’s proponents passed a “fix” a week later, which the governor signed, says that religious freedom cannot come at the expense of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons and has calmed the atmosphere for now.

“There’s a little bit of schadenfreude — that the governor was embarrassed and had to walk this back,” Friedland said.

Still, the unfriendly spotlight on Indiana — and the travel bans and beginnings of a commercial boycott — “is not how we want to be the center of attention,” said Rabbi Sandy Sasso, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis, the state capital.

“Every time I bump into someone, they say ‘I can’t believe this is happening. I’m so embarrassed.’ You really can’t go anywhere without people talking about it.”

In Evansville, at the southwest end of the state, Rabbi Gary Mazo spoke at his Seder about the meaning of freedom in the context of the RFRA debate.

“I emphasized that in today’s world, where we are no longer slaves, we are compelled to focus our efforts on both remembering and working toward securing freedom for those who are oppressed, enslaved or persecuted,” said Mazo, of Reform Temple Adath B’nai Israel. “I then made it very clear that we live in a state that has sanctioned oppression and bigotry under the guise of religious freedom, and our job is to combat that.”

Mazo said the clarifying legislation passed on April 2 does not resolve the controversy. “It was too little, too late, and the law should never have been enacted and should be repealed.”

“At this point, we’re doing what we can to make sure the rights of minority religious communities are being addres-sed,” said David Sklar, director of government affairs for the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council, which opposed RFRA.

Sklar said the JCRC began discussing the bill last summer. The agency opposed the legislation and lobbied against it as “less of a specifically LGBT issue and more of an issue of potential discrimination,” he said.

“Decades of court precedent has resulted in a workable balance in Indiana between individual and religious freedoms. RFRA would upset the balance,” he explained.

And although Jews are protected by the constitutions of Indiana and the United States, “RFRA could cloud and confuse the landscape of religious freedom in the United States,” Sklar said.

Jews have come down on both sides of the issue, and an equal number of Jews testified before legislative committees for and against RFRA, Sklar added. But the overwhelming majority of Indiana Jews oppose the legislation, he said.

Rabbi Yisrael Gettinger, of Congreg-ation B’nai Torah in Indianapolis, has come out in favor of RFRA. The Orthodox rabbi appeared with Pence in the photo taken at the first bill signing, along with “supportive lawmakers, Franciscan monks and nuns, Orthodox Jews and some of the state’s most powerful lobbyists on conservative social issues,” according to USA Today.

Gettinger declined to speak for this story. Last year, he explained his opposition to “homosexual acts” to the Indianapolis Star: “One cannot be more certain of something being inappropriate if it’s called an abomination in the Bible,” he said. “Those are not my words. Those are the Bible’s words. Those are God’s words.”

Critics of the bill say that it was not promoted to assure religious freedom, but to hold fallback position after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 let stand a circuit court’s decision to strike down Indiana’s ban on gay marriage.

“Given who was at the original signing, saying they didn’t mean to discriminate against gays was a little hard to buy,” Friedland said. “Most people saw it as a reaction to the frustration that gay rights have moved too far.”

“It’s part of this trend after Hobby Lobby,” the Supreme Court decision that decided that a corporation can be considered a person under RFRA, said Rachel Laser, deputy director of the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement.

Laser and others interviewed for this article differentiated the Indiana RFRA — and others under consideration in Arkansas, North Carolina and elsewhere — from the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed under President Bill Clinton in 1993.

“It was to be a shield for religious people. It allowed a boy who wants to wear his yarmulke in school or the Catholic priest who wants to give communion wine to his child parishioners. These new RFRAs are intended to be used as a sword to discriminate,” Laser said.

Nineteen states have RFRA laws on the books. Asked why Indiana was singled out for attention, Sklar said one reason was that it had more potential than others to be discriminatory.

“In the Indiana law, what a person entails is much broader. And Indiana did not have the protections for LGBT persons in place that other states do.”

Although the fixed RFRA does not make gays a legally protected class, it does say they cannot be discriminated against.

“This is the first time that a state law makes a positive reference to LGBT Hoosiers,” Sasso said. “The only good thing to come out of this is the outrage of the community that forced the governor and legislators to revisit this.”

On April 9, Indianapolis diners at any of four restaurants owned by Patachou Inc. can support gay rights at what owner Martha Hoover calls a “sit-in.” All proceeds for a $50 four-course meal will go to Lamda Legal, a civil rights group supporting LGBT communities.

The event is an example of how Jewish entrepreneurs are joining others in the business community in opposing discriminatory legislation.

“If you allow any discrimination, who controls the leap to what comes next?” Hoover said.

She calls the Republican backing of RFRA “both a miscalculation and a tremendous lack of leadership. It did catch them off-guard and suggests how out of touch they are.”

That disconnect is particularly strong with young adults, said Rabbi Leonard Zukrow of Temple Beth-El, a Reform congregation in Munster, an Indiana town in suburban Chicago. “This is not an issue for them. Young people in Indiana are worried about jobs.”

“Our tradition speaks to inclusiveness,” he added, and quoted from the Passover Haggadah: “To all who are hungry come and eat.”

Indiana’s apparent lack of hospitality is ill-advised “for a state that is not a leading state for business opportunities,” Friedland said.

Following the passage of the “fix,” the governors of New York, Washington and Connecticut canceled their travel bans to Indiana.

The fix does not mean all is well in Indiana, Hoover said.

By “signing one law,” Pence “has damaged the state,” she said. “Our concern is, how long lasting is the damage?”

David Holzel writes for the Washington Jewish Week. He can be reached at