When Gov. Mike Pence refused seven times to say whether a new Indiana law allows discrimination against gay people, the logical assumption was that he didn't want to admit that it does. Since that Sunday interview on ABC's This Week, however, it has become clear that the law was not written to allow discrimination, which means Pence's dance around the truth was likely calculated to score political points with opponents of gay marriage.
Pence changed his tune after the public reaction to the new law threatened events such as the coming NCAA Final Four basketball tournament in Indianapolis. He asked the legislature to amend the law to make it clearer that it isn't an invitation to discriminate.
The law, like similar statutes in 19 other states as well as a federal law, sets parameters for people and businesses to challenge rules that conflict with their religious beliefs. The Indiana law doesn't say a florist with religious objections to homosexuality can refuse to sell flowers to a gay couple, but it would give the florist the ability to legally challenge any rule requiring him to ignore his religious beliefs. Furthermore, Indiana, unlike the other states, does not have a law specifically prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, which is why many fear that Indiana's statute is more likely to encourage prejudice.
Nor is sexual orientation addressed in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which says no one can be denied "the full and equal enjoyment of the goods and services of public accommodation . . . on the ground of race, color, religion or national origin." That guarantee was challenged in what is unofficially known as the Ollie's Barbecue case. Officially, it's Katzenbach v. McClung, after Birmingham, Ala., restaurant owner Ollie McClung, who sued U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach.
Ollie's Barbecue had operated since 1927 in full compliance with Alabama's segregation laws. Black customers could buy barbecue at the counter but could not sit down to eat in the restaurant. McClung argued that the Civil Rights Act exceeded Congress' authority to regulate interstate commerce. But a unanimous Supreme Court disagreed.
As today's courts consider what latitude, if any, merchants should have in applying their religious beliefs to their business practices, the first thing all Americans should understand is that a nation that respects each individual's right to choose what he believes will have trouble accommodating disparate beliefs.