A Disappointed and Ashamed Hoosier
Posted on April 3, 2015
I’m a Hoosier. In other words, I was born and raised in Indiana. I have always taken pride in my home state and have never been embarrassed of where I’m from or of growing up in the Midwest. That was true until the last couple of weeks, as uninformed and discriminatory public policy has taken away any pride of place I feel for my home state.
The first policy is the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” There is a context here that many people outside the state of Indiana might not realize, which I thinks puts the Governor Mike Pence’s signing of this bill into historical perspective. Indiana has a well-documented history of government action promoting religious and racist discrimination. In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan, through the Republican Party, was running the state. It’s true that the Protestant Klan sought to intimidate Jews and African-Americans, but their main focus at the time was to oppress Catholics. Here are some of the highlights of my state’s history:
- Between 1922 and 1923, 2,000 Hoosiers joined the Klan each day. Protestant Ministers were offered free membership, while everyone else had to pay.
- Klansmen in the General Assembly passed a bill that created a Klan Day at the Indiana State Fair in 1922, featuring a cross burning.
- At its peak in the 1920s, one in three white Hoosier men were members of the Klan.
- With gaining political power, the Klan tried to end the authorization of Catholic Schools throughout the state.
- At the inaugural ball of Republican Governor (and Klan-supported) Edward L. Jackson, the head of the Indiana Klan, D.C. Stephenson, abducted, attacked, imprisoned, raped, “chewed on,” and poisoned Madge Oberholtzer, the head of the State’s commission to combat illiteracy. Oberholtzer eventually died from the poisoning but not before telling her tragic story.
- Stephenson was refused a pardon by the governor he helped elect and, as a result, started talking to reporters about the extent to which the Klan had taken control of many aspects of Indiana government. This led to a series of corruption and bribery charges that included the Mayor of Indianapolis and Governor Jackson. (William, 1993; Moore, 1991)
I present this history to provide a context of “religious freedom” in my state. As Hoosiers, we have a history of the white Protestant majority using its political power to institutionalize discrimination against religious and racial minorities. In the 1920’s, like today, the white religious majority felt threatened by people who they thought threatened their way of “Christian” way of life.
In Governor Pence’s interview with George Stephanopoulos (see the interview here) he refused to answer the following questions:
- “If a florist in Indiana refuses service to a gay couple, is that legal now in Indiana?”
- “Yes or no. Should it be legal to discriminate again gays and lesbians?”
I can’t imagine what it must be like for Pence to internalize the fact that the actions of himself and many in his party has made institutional, business, and governmental discrimination against a whole group of Hoosiers legal. The reality is that Pence can’t answer the second question because he has been a leader against the civil rights of the LGBTQ community (see Love v. Pence and Bowling v. Pence). The Klan-backed politicians sought to legislatively discriminate against Catholics in the 1920s, and today many politicians are seeking similar discrimination against LGBTQ communities. Both the Klan and today’s leaders justifying this discrimination in the name of God and religion.
I do want to address one more piece of Pence’s argument that the federal government and other states have similar bills. First, the, “All the other kids were doing it!” excuse doesn’t fly in my wife’s 1st grade classroom and shouldn’t in government. Second, it is not the same as the federal law. Chuck Schumer who, along with Ted Kennedy, introduced the federal law in 1993, stated that saying the laws mirror each other is “completely false” and “disingenuous.” The Indiana law (according the Indianapolis Star) is different in some key ways:
- “Unlike the federal law, the Indiana bill explicitly protects the exercise of religion of entities, which includes for profit corporations.”
- “The bill’s protection of religious liberty may be invoked not only when a person’s religious freedom has been burdened, but also when it is likelyto be substantially burdened by government action.”
- “The bill appears to allow using exercise of religion as a defense in judicial or administrative proceedings between private parties.”
In addition, unlike many states, Indiana does not classify LGBTQ individuals as a protected class. This combined with the passing of the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” makes Hoosier LBGTQ (or those visiting the state) more vulnerable to possible discrimination with less power to correct this injustice.
In recent weeks another tragedy is occurring in the Hoosier state. An HIV outbreak has occurred in Southern Indiana, where there have been 79 new infections since January. The infections are happening when people who are injecting the prescription painkiller Opana share needles. This surge in new diagnoses has pushed Pence to declare a public health emergency in Scott County.
As part of the response to this emergency, Pence authorized a 30 day executive order which overrides the Indiana law forbidding needle exchange programs. For those that are not familiar with needle exchange programs, they allow an injection drug user to exchange used needles for clean ones. These programs have demonstrated several key findings (according to the Center for Disease Control):
- Decrease negative consequences of drug use, including the spread of HIV.
- They are cost effective. The CDC estimates that needle exchange programs cost about $4,000 to $12,000 to prevent a case of HIV, versus the $190,000 it would take annually for HIV medical treatment.
- Needle exchange DOES NOT INCREASE THE AMOUNT OF DRUG USE OR CREATE NEW USERS.
- Connect those struggling with addiction to helpers who can provide them with resources and treatment, increasing the likelihood of breaking free of the addiction.
Pence’s actions are the first time I’ve heard of anyone using needle exchange as a 30 day treatment for an infectious disease outbreak. He seems to lack any insight or understanding that a needle exchange program, as a preventative not treatment model, could have prevented or minimized this outbreak to begin with, and saved tax payers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Does Pence think that supplying needles for 30 days will solve the problem? What about other counties close to the epidemic?
I can’t find any logic in why someone who believes, against ALL evidence, that clean needles promote drug use and addiction, would think that 30 days of clean needles is going to have any impact on prevention of future outbreaks. Misguided policies helped create the environment (one without access to safe injection methods) for the outbreak to occur. Why does Pence, who is against needle exchange, think a short term program will work? Under his logic, won’t this mean for the next 30 days more people currently not using will begin injecting Opana while increasing the rate of use for those already injecting?
What has happened in my home state over the last couple of weeks is a cause for anger, frustration, and outrage. But overall, I’m just sad and ashamed. There are wonderful, kind, and intelligent people all over Indiana, but the political environment has swung back to a dangerous, hateful, and outdated place, where people are political power and religion once again to hurt minorities and people in need to help on many different levels. I hope that this time logic, and not a horrendous murder, helps bring insight to the people and policymakers of a state I was once proud to call home.