ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Indiana lawmakers remain on the defensive over the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Opponents say the law, signed last week, sanctions discrimination against gays and lesbians. Some companies say they may avoid doing business in the state. Today, Indiana's Senate Republican leader, David Long, said he would not have voted for a bill that allows discrimination.
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DAVID LONG: To the extent that we need to clarify that by adding something to the law to make that clear, that's not the intent of the law. We're more than willing to do it. We plan to do that.
SIEGEL: The state's Democratic Senate minority leader, Tim Lanane, was not convinced.
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TIM LANANE: When you have a bill which is this tainted, this corrupted, there's no fix to it. You just get rid of it.
SIEGEL: Seven other states are also considering similar legislation. And as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, these laws are actually not new, but the controversy is.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Congress passed the first federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act two decades ago. The vote was nearly unanimous. Nineteen other states have their own laws, so why the fuss now?
TIM SCHULTZ: Our whole country has become more polarized.
LUDDEN: Tim Schultz heads the First Amendment Partnership and has worked with a number of states to pass religious freedom laws.
SCHULTZ: America has also grown more secular, and I think we've had the rise of a lot of these other cultural issues, which is the prism through which people view these religious freedom issues.
LUDDEN: Cultural issues like same-sex marriage, although he and other supporters insist that's not what these laws are about.
DOUGLAS LAYCOCK: It's stunning. I think most of these people have been fed a bill of goods.
LUDDEN: Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia helped write the federal law. He blames both sides for exaggerating their possible impact on gay rights, saying some Republican supporters of these laws are posturing for their base. In reality, Laycock says, religious freedom laws are mostly used for a wide range of other reasons.
LAYCOCK: They're cases about churches feeding the homeless. The neighbors sometimes don't like that. There are cases about Muslim women wearing scarves or veils. They're about Amish buggies. They're about Sabbath observers.
LUDDEN: In the few cases about same-sex weddings, Laycock says plaintiffs have lost. A judge in Washington state last month ruled against a florist, saying antidiscrimination laws trump religious freedom.
EUNICE RHO: I'm glad that the Washington court held the way it did, but there's no saying what courts in Georgia or in Indiana or Arkansas would do.
LUDDEN: Eunice Rho is with the American Civil Liberties Union, which, back in 1993, supported the federal religious freedom law. But Rho is troubled by how some state laws have been used.
RHO: You know, there was a case in Oklahoma where a police officer refused to attend a community event held by the local Islamic society because his religious beliefs led him to believe that he needed to proselytize.
LUDDEN: The officer sued under religious freedom, though lost his case. Still, Rho says Indiana and some other states are tweaking the law to apply it more broadly. Jeff Graham heads Georgia Equality, which opposes a religious freedom bill there.
JEFF GRAHAM: We feel that this is very clearly backlash around the growing acceptance of the gay and transgender community and a specific response to the growing legality of marriages around the country.
LUDDEN: Graham says Georgia has no state law protecting the LGBT community. Last week, a clause protecting them was added to the state's religious freedom bill, but...
GRAHAM: The bill's sponsors themselves said that they would rather kill their own bill than have protections put into the bill that would protect the gay and transgender community against discrimination.
LUDDEN: Georgia lawmakers were supposed to debate the bill again today, but canceled. In Arkansas, lawmakers today advanced a bill there, and protesters turned out in force.
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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Veto, veto, veto, veto.
LUDDEN: Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.