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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:

  1. “Unlike the federal law, the Indiana bill explicitly protects the exercise of religion of entities, which includes for profit corporations.”
  2. “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.”
  3. “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):

  1. Decrease negative consequences of drug use, including the spread of HIV.
  2. 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.
  3. Needle exchange DOES NOT INCREASE THE AMOUNT OF DRUG USE OR CREATE NEW USERS.
  4. 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.

6 responses to “A Disappointed and Ashamed Hoosier”

  1. William Herl says:

    Matt: I relate to how you view what is happening in the area that you grew up. Having grown up in small town Southern Illinois many of the experiences you reference existed in the community in which I was raised. Unfortunately although what you point out is happening in Indiana the same is true in many other areas of the Midwest. I was raised in an area that holds itself out as a community, what they fail to accept is that they want the community to only look, act and belief as they do. Tolerance is absent and the use of religion to justify intolerable actions is abundant. Thus the reason that education is so important in this country.

  2. William Herl says:

    Matt: I relate to how you view what is happening in the area that you grew up. Having grown up in small town Southern Illinois many of the experiences you reference existed in the community in which I was raised. Unfortunately although what you point out is happening in Indiana the same is true in many other areas of the Midwest. I was raised in an area that holds itself out as a community, what they fail to accept is that they want the community to only look, act and belief as they do. Tolerance is absent and the use of religion to justify intolerable actions is abundant. Thus the reason that education is so important in this country.

  3. Nick says:

    Hi Matt!

    I feel your pain because I am a disppointed and ashamed Mississippian!

    It is true that President Bill Clinton signed a religious freedom restoration law in 1993, which was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1997. The RFRA signed by Clinton was intended to address an earlier Supreme Court ruling which had taken away the rights of First Nations Peoples to use peyote in their religious observances. The Supreme Court held in 1997 that the federal government had overreached in enacting the federal RFRA, and that this issue was more properly within the purview of the states. By the year 2000, 18 states had enacted their own versions of the RFRA.

    The issue remained dormant for almost 15 years. Then, in 2014, RFRA bills were introduced almost simultaneously in 20 state legislatures. One significant issue had moved to the foreground in the intervening 15 years: increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage. Social conservatives realized they were losing this fight, so they shifted to a push for “religious freedom restoration” legislation as backdoor permission to practice discrimination without consequences. The states that were genuinely concerned about religious freedom had enacted their laws within two years of the Supreme Court’s 1997 decision. This new batch of laws in 2014 were promoted primarily by the hate groups American Family Association and the Family Research Council.

    As state after state considered these bills, beginning with Kansas, then Tennessee, and other states, backlash and criticism arose as the discriminatory intent of these bills became clear. Only Arizona’s bill passed through its legislature and was sent to its governor. Amidst a great national outcry, Governor Jan Brewer had the good sense to veto the bill.

    In Mississippi, however, two Baptist ministers had gotten themselves elected to the state legislature, and they were determined to enshrine their bigotry in state law. They used deceit and legislative legerdemain to accomplish their objectives. Progressives and right-minded citizens attempted to fight the bill as had happened in other states, but the Southern Baptist Convention aligned itself with the hate groups and threatened reprisals against state legislators if they did not support “religious freedom testoration” in the state with the largest number of church attendees in the country. The idea that religious freedom was threatened in Mississippi was ludicrous!

    But Pastor and Representative Andy Gipson, who had publicly called for gay citizens to be executed, was terrified that he might be called upon to officiate at a same-sex wedding, and he drove the effort to get the bill passed, even though he was repudiated by his colleagues in the Mississippi House of Representatives. As in Indiana, the cowardly governor of Mississippi signed the bill in a closed, secret ceremony. As in Indiana, the Mississippi governor claimed to be surrounded by “faith leaders” as he signed the bill into law, but both governors refused to identify those in the signing photo. Further investigation showed that, in Mississippi as in Indiana, the respective governors were surrounded by lobbyists and politicians, not faith leaders. The action of Mississippi’s governor is particularly heinous because his own son is gay, and the governor chose to sign a law giving second class status to his own son for the sake of political expediency.

    I was very actively involved in the fight against the Mississippi equivalent of the law Indiana just enacted, and I was not about to allow the celebrants of bigotry to go unacknowledged. I was determined to identify and expose every single person, and, with help from others, I was able to do so. My work was picked up and recognized in the blog at Towle Road: Here’s All the Anti-Gay Haters Who Attended the Signing of Mississippi’s ‘License to Discriminate’ Bill.

    So, here, finally, is my point: when it comes to anti-gay bigotry and discrimination, Mississippi was there first! Why is it that when Mississippi passes a RFRA law, the nation yawns, as if this is expected behavior for the state, but when Indiana passes a substantially similar law, invoking *identical* arguments (believe me — I heard ALL of them last year), we have a national chorus of outrage and calls for boycotts? Are not the LGBT citizens of Mississippi worthy of concern too? Shouldn’t we be calling for boycotts of Mississippi, too? I realize Mississippi isn’t nearly as popular of a tourist destination as Indiana may be, but tourism is the state’s fourth largest industry. A concerted boycott would pinch the state’s economy HARD.

    And that’s what I’m calling for, HAVE been calling for. If Indiana’s actions are worthy of condemnation — and they are — then Mississippi’s actions should be as well, and should have the same sort of response. I don’t think we should get a free pass just because this kind of behavior is expected of us.

    Just a few mumblings from Nick! I don’t mean to hijack your blog, Matt, but you happened to hit on a sore point this week. 🙂

  4. Nick says:

    Hi Matt!

    I feel your pain because I am a disppointed and ashamed Mississippian!

    It is true that President Bill Clinton signed a religious freedom restoration law in 1993, which was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1997. The RFRA signed by Clinton was intended to address an earlier Supreme Court ruling which had taken away the rights of First Nations Peoples to use peyote in their religious observances. The Supreme Court held in 1997 that the federal government had overreached in enacting the federal RFRA, and that this issue was more properly within the purview of the states. By the year 2000, 18 states had enacted their own versions of the RFRA.

    The issue remained dormant for almost 15 years. Then, in 2014, RFRA bills were introduced almost simultaneously in 20 state legislatures. One significant issue had moved to the foreground in the intervening 15 years: increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage. Social conservatives realized they were losing this fight, so they shifted to a push for “religious freedom restoration” legislation as backdoor permission to practice discrimination without consequences. The states that were genuinely concerned about religious freedom had enacted their laws within two years of the Supreme Court’s 1997 decision. This new batch of laws in 2014 were promoted primarily by the hate groups American Family Association and the Family Research Council.

    As state after state considered these bills, beginning with Kansas, then Tennessee, and other states, backlash and criticism arose as the discriminatory intent of these bills became clear. Only Arizona’s bill passed through its legislature and was sent to its governor. Amidst a great national outcry, Governor Jan Brewer had the good sense to veto the bill.

    In Mississippi, however, two Baptist ministers had gotten themselves elected to the state legislature, and they were determined to enshrine their bigotry in state law. They used deceit and legislative legerdemain to accomplish their objectives. Progressives and right-minded citizens attempted to fight the bill as had happened in other states, but the Southern Baptist Convention aligned itself with the hate groups and threatened reprisals against state legislators if they did not support “religious freedom testoration” in the state with the largest number of church attendees in the country. The idea that religious freedom was threatened in Mississippi was ludicrous!

    But Pastor and Representative Andy Gipson, who had publicly called for gay citizens to be executed, was terrified that he might be called upon to officiate at a same-sex wedding, and he drove the effort to get the bill passed, even though he was repudiated by his colleagues in the Mississippi House of Representatives. As in Indiana, the cowardly governor of Mississippi signed the bill in a closed, secret ceremony. As in Indiana, the Mississippi governor claimed to be surrounded by “faith leaders” as he signed the bill into law, but both governors refused to identify those in the signing photo. Further investigation showed that, in Mississippi as in Indiana, the respective governors were surrounded by lobbyists and politicians, not faith leaders. The action of Mississippi’s governor is particularly heinous because his own son is gay, and the governor chose to sign a law giving second class status to his own son for the sake of political expediency.

    I was very actively involved in the fight against the Mississippi equivalent of the law Indiana just enacted, and I was not about to allow the celebrants of bigotry to go unacknowledged. I was determined to identify and expose every single person, and, with help from others, I was able to do so. My work was picked up and recognized in the blog at Towle Road: Here’s All the Anti-Gay Haters Who Attended the Signing of Mississippi’s ‘License to Discriminate’ Bill.

    So, here, finally, is my point: when it comes to anti-gay bigotry and discrimination, Mississippi was there first! Why is it that when Mississippi passes a RFRA law, the nation yawns, as if this is expected behavior for the state, but when Indiana passes a substantially similar law, invoking *identical* arguments (believe me — I heard ALL of them last year), we have a national chorus of outrage and calls for boycotts? Are not the LGBT citizens of Mississippi worthy of concern too? Shouldn’t we be calling for boycotts of Mississippi, too? I realize Mississippi isn’t nearly as popular of a tourist destination as Indiana may be, but tourism is the state’s fourth largest industry. A concerted boycott would pinch the state’s economy HARD.

    And that’s what I’m calling for, HAVE been calling for. If Indiana’s actions are worthy of condemnation — and they are — then Mississippi’s actions should be as well, and should have the same sort of response. I don’t think we should get a free pass just because this kind of behavior is expected of us.

    Just a few mumblings from Nick! I don’t mean to hijack your blog, Matt, but you happened to hit on a sore point this week. 🙂

  5. Steven Hunter says:

    If you do not understand racism, what it is, and how it works, than everything you think you know will only confuse you. The love for the so called African American is a perfect example of how hate can effect a community.

  6. Steven Hunter says:

    If you do not understand racism, what it is, and how it works, than everything you think you know will only confuse you. The love for the so called African American is a perfect example of how hate can effect a community.

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