Fox News anchor Bret Baier debunked the network's defense of Indiana's discriminatory “religious freedom” law, explaining that the law is broader than both federal law and similar measures in other states.
Last week, Indiana became the center of a political firestorm after the state legislature passed its version of the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA), a law that allows private individuals and for-profit business owners to cite their religious beliefs as a legal defense against claims of discrimination from consumers who have been wrongfully denied services based solely on their sexual orientation or gender identity. As the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana explained, Indiana's RFRA “may embolden individuals and businesses who now feel that their religious liberty is 'burdened' by treating a member of the LGBT community equally and that their 'burden' trumps others' rights to be free from discrimination.”
Proponents of the law, including Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence, have downplayed these potential consequences by incorrectly claiming that the law is noncontroversial because it merely mirrors the federal RFRA and RFRAs in other states. It's a talking point that has been repeated on Fox News, which has so far depicted Indiana's law as a benign attempt to protect the devout from government encroachment on religious freedom.
But during the March 30 edition of Happening Now, Baier deflated his network's defense of the law, explaining to host Eric Shawn that Indiana's RFRA is “broader” than both federal law and other state RFRAs:
ERIC SHAWN: You know, the law was intended to protect personal religious liberties against government overreach and intrusion. So what happened?
BAIER: Well, Indiana's law is written a little differently. It is more broad. It is different than the federal law that it's close to, but different than, and also different than 19 other states and how the law is written. In specific terms, Indiana's law deals with a person who can claim religious persecution but that includes corporations, for profit entities and it could also be used as a defense in a civil suit that does not involve the government. That is broader than the other laws. This is where it's a little different in Indiana's case. You saw governor Mike Pence try to defend the law and say it's just like the 1993 federal law where it's just like 19 other states, but as you look in the fine print, it's not really, and it may be something that Indiana deals with in specifics to line up with the others.
SHAWN: Obviously, it had good intentions. What do you think happened to make it kind of go off the rails this way?
BAIER: Well, how it was structured, Eric. And I think that, you know, there may be good intentions behind it but how it's being interpreted is being a little bit more forward leaning than any other Religious Freedom Restoration Act on the books. What this does politically, obviously Mike Pence has been talked about as a governor thinking about a 2016 run. We don't know if he's going to do it or not. But that interview with Stephanopoulos over the weekend was obviously not a great back and forth in defense of this law that likely is going to have to be at least tweaked, if not changed. [emphasis added]
Baier's comments echo what others have already noted: Indiana's RFRA is categorically different from other “religious freedom” laws, because it includes for-profit businesses under its definition of “persons” capable of religious expression. The Indiana law also allows private individuals and businesses to claim a religious exemption in court “regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding.” Those differences -- which the ACLU has called “virtually without precedent” -- expand the scope of Indiana's RFRA and provide a legal defense for businesses and individuals who refuse service to LGBT residents. As The Atlantic's Garrett Epps noted:
[T]he Indiana law explicitly allows any for-profit business to assert a right to “the free exercise of religion.” The federal RFRA doesn't contain such language, and neither does any of the state RFRAs except South Carolina's; in fact, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, explicitly exclude for-profit businesses from the protection of their RFRAs.
It remains to be seen whether Baier's debunking will stick at Fox News. But when it comes to protecting laws that allow for anti-LGBT discrimination, the network has never let the facts get in the way.