OPINION: MAC gets it right on Indiana ‘religious freedom’ law

Mac_logo_200By John Irwin

The Mid-American Conference received some attention this week after announcing it would not be hosting future events in Indiana in response to the state’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

More from ESPN.com:

MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher told ESPN that his league will not hold future championships or meetings in the state.

“The Mid-American Conference will not schedule any more meetings or championships in Indiana until this current matter is brought to a sensible and appropriate conclusion,” Steinbrecher said.

Steinbrecher said the MAC has its annual presidents meeting in January or February in Indianapolis, but next year’s meeting will not be held there, nor will any future MAC championship events, unless changes are made.

Ball State is the only MAC school located in the state.

Steinbrecher said he informed his membership and NCAA president Mark Emmert about the MAC’s decision not to schedule future events in Indiana. Steinbrecher said he also suggested to Emmert that the NCAA should pull all NCAA events from the state and move the NCAA’s offices from Indianapolis.

Steinbrecher should be applauded for taking a stand against a law that’s come under fire from LGBT advocates over the last several days.

The RFRA, signed by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence last week, allows for businesses and individuals to, among other things, cite their religious beliefs in a legal dispute. Critics of the law have noted that this could allow for private businesses to deny services to LGBT customers if they do not believe in same-sex marriage for religious reasons.

Regardless of one’s religious stance (or non-stance) on same-sex marriage, most Americans have moved on from its validity in the eyes of government. Most Americans have moved on from the idea that the state can limit who can marry who and from supporting the notion that the LGBT community doesn’t deserve the same basic rights as other Americans. Most would prefer politicians not impose their religious worldviews on others while in office.

And yet, that’s exactly what Pence and the Indiana General Assembly have apparently done.

Pence said in a press conference Tuesday that the law does “not give anyone a license to discriminate.” He ordered the General Assembly to send an amendment to the law to his desk that would make it clear the law does not allow businesses to discriminate, but stopped short of calling for explicit protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

He did, however, make sure everyone knew who the real victim was in this case: himself.

“That is so offensive to me as a Hoosier,” Pence said during a press conference in Indianapolis, casting himself, the GOP-controlled General Assembly and the new Religious Freedom Restoration Act as victims of “mischaracterizations” perpetrated by the media and the law’s opponents.

Such statements make it tough to believe that the law’s anti-LGBT implications were simply the product of an oversight on the part of legislators. Rather, it seems likely that Pence and others crafted the law in such a way as to not offend business interests that have made it clear LGBT discrimination is a no-go while simultaneously appealing to a political base that wishes it was.

Well, it turns out that neither the public nor the business community wants to have a part of a bill such as this. Numerous companies and business leaders have condemned the state. Even Walmart, considered a progressive company by no one, has called for changes to the law and for a veto of a similar bill in Arkansas.

But these are only words. There has been little action on the part of these companies thus far, but Steinbrecher and the MAC have decided to back up their talk with decisive action.

To be clear, the MAC is technically not a business, but Steinbrecher apparently recognizes collegiate athletics’ role in the regional economy. Pulling all MAC activities from the state sends a powerful statement against discrimination because money talks.

The MAC is by no means an economic powerhouse like the NFL is. The NFL pulling its combine from Indianapolis, threatening no future Super Bowls and working with the Indianapolis Colts to determine ways to protest the law (including pulling the team’s home games from the state until things change) would have a greater impact. As would the NCAA moving its headquarters out of Indianapolis and pulling all future events from the state until further notice.

That includes, most notably, the men’s basketball Final Four games this Saturday and the championship game on Monday in Indianapolis. Is it realistic to expect the notoriously slow-moving NCAA to make a decisive decision to pull the Final Four out of Indy? Probably not. But the economic blow it could potentially deal the state could force the General Assembly to act decisively to extend protections against LGBT discrimination.

It’s unlikely to happen, unfortunately, but Steinbrecher might get the ball rolling toward that. Other conferences like the Big Ten could threaten look at the MAC’s example to pull future events from Indiana, too. As more conferences do that, the NCAA could feel pressure to take action itself, if not with the Final Four, then with future events in the state.

Sports are both big business and a huge part of American life. Seeing these powerful institutions take a legitimate stand against state-sponsored discrimination would send a message to Indiana and to other states that there is no place for that in 21st-Century America.

The debate over the LGBT community is over. Americans know it, businesses know it. Having our sports institutions reinforce that and pressure lawmakers to act accordingly is the next step, and potentially the most powerful step.

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