Vt. House Passes Resolution in Response to Indiana Controversy

By Isabelle Dietz

Last Friday, April 3, the Vermont House adopted a House Resolution, H.R.8, that expresses “strong opposition to state religious freedom restoration legislation that authorizes discrimination based on sexual orientation.” This comes as a response to Indiana’s passage of the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“I am proud that Vermont has taken a stand. What the resolution does, more than anything, is to confirm our own core values as citizens of this great state,” Representative Steven Berry (D) from Bennington, one of the resolution’s sponsors, said. “In the end we all breathe the same air, drink the same water, share the earth, and have within our hearts a like desire for life, liberty and, however we define it, our own pursuit of happiness….What Indiana is seeking to do is to undo what people have fought long and hard at great personal cost, to overcome. I choose not to go backward. Thus I affixed my name.”

There was bipartisan support for this resolution, which passed in a vote of 119 to 1. 30 representatives were absent on the date of the vote.

“Vermont has plenty of challenges within its borders,” Rep. Warren Van Wyck of Ferrisburgh, the only opposition vote, said in a statement. “I am not interested in passing judgments on the actions of the legislatures of the other 49 states unless they directly affect the substantive well-being of the State of Vermont and its residents.”

For many of the other representatives, this resolution was a way for Vermont to respond to laws such as those passed in Indiana.

“My aunt who lives in Indianapolis had contacted me to let me know how embarrassed she was with Indiana’s newly enacted religious freedom law,” Rep. Susan Hatch Davis, a Democrat and Progressive of Orange Country and one of the resolution’s sponsors, said. “A law which could only be described as a thinly veiled attempt to promote an endorse discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. For me, Vermont  has long time been a state who respects and values contributions of everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, who lives, works and visits here.  I could not in good conscience support laws such as Indiana’s newly enacted law that made discrimination legal, particularly against LGBT people. Vermont needed to stand against the law. Hence the resolution.”

This resolution came in response to the massive controversy over Indiana’s religious freedom law. Many claim that the law could be used to discriminate against LGBT groups. Several organizations and leaders expressed disatisfaction with the law, including Subaru, the NCAA and Tim Cook of Apple. Now the Vermont House has taken a stand against it as well.

“Vermont has a long-standing tradition of inclusion,” noted Representative Herb Russell (D) from Rutland in the House notes. “We are proudly known for our diversity. As a gay man who chose to move here, first returning member of my family since 1816, I considered this place a natural choice. I reaffirm our motto ‘Freedom and Unity’ by joining all LGBT Vermonters in voting yes for this resolution on this Good Friday.”

The Disciples of Christ, a religious organization, also protested against the law and plans to move their Indiana convention in response to it.

On March 31, Governor Shumlin offered up Vermont as a welcoming state to any conventions that wished to move out of Indiana. He wrote a letter to the union American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), inviting them to relocate their 2015 Women’s Conference to Vermont. The union, which is the largest trade union of public employees in the United States, canceled plans for their conference location in Indiana after the religious freedoms law was passed.

“Our state has a long, proud tradition of supporting equal rights,” Shumlin wrote in his letter. “Vermont was the first state to outlaw slavery and the first state to legislate marriage equality simply because it was the right thing to do, not because a court mandated it.  In that tradition, we would be proud to work with you to determine if Vermont has facilities that can accommodate your conference, and if so, relocate it to the Green Mountains.”

In addition, Shumlin banned all non-essential state-funded travel to Indiana on March 31. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy also imposed similar bans.
There are supporters of the religious freedom law. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has repeatedly spoken out in favor of it, and called the move “brave.”

Memories Pizza of Walkerton, Indiana, came under fire after its owner announced that she would refuse to cater gay or lesbian weddings because of her religious beliefs.

The restaurant’s Yelp page was overwhelmed with comments (including threats) and in response, a crowdfund page for the pizza shop raised over $840,000 to support them in only three days and is no longer accepting donations.

In response to considerable backlash, Indiana’s Governor Mike Pence signed a bill on April 2 to clarify that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not allow businesses to refuse to serve LGBT individuals or other minority groups.

“Over the past week this law has become a subject of great misunderstanding and controversy across our state and nation,” Pence said in a statement. “However we got here, we are where we are, and it is important that our state take action to address the concerns that have been raised and move forward.”

“Now that this is behind us, let’s move forward together with a renewed commitment to the civility and respect that make this state great.”

To restore their image, many businesses in Indiana have participated in a window sticker campaign to tell the public that all customers are welcome.  The blue stickers read, “This business serves everyone” to clarify that they do not discriminate.