What India can learn from Indiana: How religious freedom can affect gay rights

Vikram Johri
Vikram JohriApr 03, 2015 | 20:00

What India can learn from Indiana: How religious freedom can affect gay rights

Pointers to the future of the gay rights movement are playing out in America right now, with Indiana's Religious Freedom and Restoration Act having become a bone of contention between gay rights groups and the conservative lobby.

The Bill, if passed, would allow shops and businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples in accordance with the former's religious principles. Already, Memories Pizza, a family-owned pizzeria in the state, has stated it would refuse to provide pizzas at a same-sex wedding should such an order be placed. (As one wit remarked: "Since when has a gay wedding had something so standard as a pizza?")


The battle is not new; the first religious freedom Bill was signed into law by the federal government under Bill Clinton in 1993. But it has acquired renewed vigour due to this particular moment in the gay rights battle. The US Supreme Court will decide on nationwide gay marriage later this month and is widely expected to come out in favour. The religious Bill in Indiana is then seen as a blowback by conservatives in the fight for gay equality.

This may seem to be a non-issue on the face of it. If I am not going to be served at a shop, I can choose to go to another. But by allowing religious liberty to dictate corporate policy, Indiana has made a choice that can have grave repercussions.

Last year the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of Hobby Lobby in a case that gives us some indication of how policy can conflict with private beliefs. The Oklahoma-based retailer had refused to provide contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act in keeping with the religious beliefs of its founders. The Supreme Court agreed with Hobby Lobby's view and exempted the company from providing birth control support to female employees.


Several large companies, including Apple and Starbucks, have criticised Indiana's bill. Starbucks, which recently made an abortive attempt to focus attention on race, is keen to appear progressive on gay rights. Apple, whose CEO is gay, is part of the broader Silicon Valley crowd that has always plumped for libertarian principles when it comes to gay marriage. But besides making statements of support, these companies are mostly unaffected by the issue; it does not upset their bottomlines. It is the mom-and-pop stores such as the Indiana pizzeria that have become the flashpoints of this battle, what with their views splitting the local community down the middle. (While the pizzeria was forced to briefly down shutters in response to phone-ins and social media criticism, they have also received $400,000 in crowd-funded support.) The war is down to the brass tacks.

Conservatives split hairs by offering the counter argument that the law does not discriminate against gay people, but same sex couples. The India pizzeria, per this view, will not refuse service to a gay person. It's funny when conservatives make something obvious look like it comes from the kindness of their heart. The pizzeria would not refuse service to a gay man because it would not know the man's gay, unless he has had it emblazoned on his forehead. But when, as a policy, it refuses service to a gay couple, it is benefitting from an institutional setup that criminalises gay relationships and gay love.


It is easy to paint this battle as one of only minutiae. No one is stopping me from living as a homosexual, but why throw "my lifestyle" down another's gullet? The problem with this view is that it masks deep-seated bigotry. It automatically places me as different by refusing me those privileges that a straight couple is entitled to. Indiana's bill is not about letting me live; it's about letting me live a full life with a same sex partner and enjoying the fruits, including social acceptance, of that companionship.

If a company can refuse to provide me service for being gay, what is to stop it from discriminating against employees who are gay? What is to stop it from donating to anti-gay causes? It isn't even about same sex marriage alone - countless discriminations in the past have found sustenance in religion. For the longest time, the Church supported apartheid in South Africa because skin colour, in its view, was "god-ordained".

There are lessons for India in this debate. It is possible that the law here may eventually come to allow gays the same rights and liberties that straight people enjoy, but legislative ingenuity can still stump the fight for full equality. It is not inconceivable that voices aligned to the Sangh Parivar would want the government of the day to enact laws that would, in some format or the other, confer on gays a lesser citizenship. Thanks, paradoxically, to Indiana's bill, activists in this country will have their arguments ready by a long shot.

Last updated: April 03, 2015 | 20:00
Please log in
I agree with DailyO's privacy policy