Indiana merchants are caught in a political storm

          Laura Heller

The state of Indiana is at the center of a firestorm this week that puts retailers on the front line of a pitched battle between conservative politicians and those voicing support of gay rights. And while it's being done in the name of religious freedom, one of the side effects of this law is forcing retailers to take a position.

Last week, Indiana legislators passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Governor Mike Pence signed it into law. The act claims to protect businesses and individuals from prosecution for refusing service based on one's religious beliefs. The law is similar to existing laws in other states, but unlike many of those laws this one, following the overturn of Indiana's law banning gay marriage, is being adopted in a state that does not have a law protecting homosexuals from discrimination. Other states with RFRAs, including my home state of Illinois, do have laws to protect this group.

And, of course, there's Hobby Lobby. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby could refuse to provide medical coverage based on the owner's religious convictions, it opened the door for other for-profit groups, including retailers, to exert religious freedom as a reason to create policy.

I am a part-time resident of Indiana, and have spent the better part of the last 48 hours dissecting and debating the law. And while the finer points and legalese are unrelated to my professional realm, retail, and the repercussions are clearly well inside the lines of my editorial coverage.

Merchants may be rallying around both sides in this debate, but the ones I'm hearing from or about, are eager for their customers to know they are "Open for Service."

Open For Service is a movement and group launched on March 11 as news of the RFRA began to leak out. Created by Indiana resident Josh Driver, the goal is to create a directory of businesses that reject the discriminatory implications of the RFRA. For $10, a business can obtain a sticker for its window declaring "This business serves everyone."

The money raised is being directed to a not-for-profit called SCORE, a group focused on "helping fund future open-minded businesses and organizations."

Since March 11, Open For Service has had requests from more than 2,000 businesses in Indiana, 26 other states and three countries: Australia, Canada and the U.K. It has also raised more than $15,000 for SCORE, Driver told me on Saturday.

As I write this, the Indiana legislature is reviewing the law. It seems clear that public outcry and the response from business leaders are pushing Pence and company to make changes, and fast.

It's an unusual situation that puts merchants that interface with the public in the role of activist and intermediary. It's a reluctant role, I'm sure. Retailers in the past have not fared well in the harsh spotlight of social activist scrutiny. No matter how progressive, businesses will always make a mistake, overlook something or be urged to do even more.

But merchants will have to rise to the occasion and take a stand. Shoppers are demanding it.

While the Open For Service initiative began in Indiana, the sentiment is spreading fast as states rush to introduce similar legislation, or re-examine a law already on the books. The nation is a much different place than it was 20 years ago, when Bill Clinton signed the federal version of the RFRA. And it's a much different place than the one less than a decade ago when then Senator Barack Obama signed Illinois' RFRA.

Sitting on the sidelines won't be possible. -Laura