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Some Clarity for Governor Mike Pence on Religious Freedom

As a state in the heartland of the country, Indiana has long been associated with “Hoosier Hospitality” and down-home charm. A sleepy Midwestern gem, it is not accustomed to wide-spread attention for much. One can only imagine the dismay to many Hoosiers that Indiana is now the talk of nation but only because of its bigotry.

Last Thursday, Governor Mike Pence signed into law SB 101, known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The bill was passed by the Republican dominated state legislature (no Democrats voted yes). This act, disguised as providing protection for religious freedom, is a sanctioned enactment of bigotry against members of the LGBTQ community.

Despite Gov. Pence’s denial that the bill allows for discrimination, many of its supporters and architects have stated that no longer will Christian businesses have to serve Homosexuals. The liberal populace of the state and the country has sounded off against the governor with their disgust and outrage. Celebrities such as George Takei of Star Trek fame, Ashton Kutcher, and former Indiana Pacer and NBA great Reggie Miller have all made public statements expressing their opposition to the bill. Organizations and City governments such as the NCAA, Gen-Con, San Francisco, and Seattle are all on board in boycotting Indiana. Even the Republican mayor of Indianapolis, Greg Ballard, laments the passage of the act (no doubt as a response to the revenue his city will lose from the backlash).

This morning, Gov. Pence made an appearance on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" to clarify some aspects of the bill. When asked if the bill allowed for business owners to discriminate against LGBTQ customers, he refused to answer, skirting the question at every single turn. What Gov. Pence did discuss at length was the passage of the act by the federal government in 1993 under Bill Clinton. In fact he referenced this event several times in his 13 minute appearance.

“The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was signed into federal law by President Bill Clinton more than twenty years ago. And it lays out a framework for ensuring that uh--a very high level of scrutiny is given any time government action impinges on the religious liberty of any American…” (Governor Pence)

Many conservatives have jumped on the band wagon of citing Clinton’s version of the bill, insinuating that liberals are hypocrites. There is a pretty big disparity between the ’93 bill and the abomination that Indiana passed this month. While the original act protects all Americans of all religions, its primary purpose served to the protection of Native Americans in our spiritual practices. The ongoing expansion of government projects occupying and desecrating sacred lands had become a burden of a most threatening nature to many tribes. Given that our spirituality is directly tied our place on this earth, land is most sacred to our beliefs and culture.

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The ’93 bill also served to enforce the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, as it was continuously infringed upon and challenged. Peyote use in ceremonies was another aspect that had been left unprotected, and the ’93 act sought to rectify this. Native Americans who had lost their jobs or unemployment benefits due to testing positive for mescaline, the main psychoactive compound in the peyote cactus, had no legal recourse until the bill was passed.

As an Apache woman, as well as a lifelong Hoosier, I am appalled that my governor could liken this bill of bigotry to an act that was created to protect the rights of indigenous people. Nowhere in the original bill did it provide the right to discriminate to homophobic business owners. As Native people, we have had to fight to have our traditional ways not only respected, but legalized on our own homelands. We had to wait to receive the right to religious freedom nearly two centuries after the rest of the nation received theirs. How dare Gov. Pence compare our struggle to the intolerance allowed by this act!

Gov. Pence also claimed that “tolerance is a two-way street.” I hear this come up frequently from conservatives who claim that liberals are intolerant to views different from their own. Allow me to clarify. Not tolerating bigotry and oppression is NOT the same as being intolerant. When we (liberals) state that we are against intolerance, we mean it. We believe that all races, religions, sexualities, genders, ages, etc. should be tolerated, accepted, and celebrated. Racism, sexism, homophobia, or prejudice of any kind should not. It is quite simple.

The governor also spoke of Hoosier Hospitality and how welcoming and kind Indiana is. I can debunk that notion immediately. I grew up in a small town of Indiana. I am an enrolled member of my Lipan Apache tribe, but I am also of Mescalero Apache, Yaqui and Mexica (Aztec) descent. I was labeled a Mexican, a spic, a wetback, a tomato picker, a redskin, a beaner. The list of insults is as long as the lasting impression I have of the Hoosier state. Students told racist jokes about me, they wrote spic on my locker and desk. The school did nothing. In fact, I was denied certain honors in high school because my skin color did not fit the desired criteria. I have been detained for driving infractions and questioned about my immigration status. When white people hear me speak Spanish they call me a dirty Mexican and tell me to go back to Mexico (I’ve been to the border once, when I was 13). When they discover I’m Indian, all of a sudden they are the descendants of Cherokee royalty and are fascinated. Until they realize I am the radical Indian, who does not tolerate cultural misappropriation. Then I’m one of “those Indians.” I can personally declare that the nature of many Hoosiers is in no way what decent human beings would consider “hospitable.”

Despite the passage of this law and the rampant racism and homophobia in this state, many Hoosiers are wonderful, progressive people who do embrace diversity and equality. That is what makes this bill all the more shameful for those of us who call this state home. Here in Indianapolis, we are fighting against this legalized oppression and working hard to show that Gov. Pence does not speak for all of us. If you think that this bill will stop at turning away “the Gays”, please believe that people of color and those practicing different faiths are next. I stand with my Two-Spirit brothers and sisters, and I say that nobody can force their archaic beliefs on me. Gov. Pence, please clarify if I have mischaracterized you or your party in any way.

Carolina Castoreno is an enrolled member of Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, and also Mescalero Apache and Yaqui. She isthe President of the Native American Student Alliance at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis and also the Indiana contact and Outreach board member to Indigenous Latinos for AIM-IN/KY. She is a writer, activist, student, and mother who is dedicated to social justice, the preservation of Native identity, and education for and of American Indians.