March 30, 2015 | 3:50 pm
On Friday, the same day Governor Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the First Church of Cannabis sought and received approval from Indiana's secretary of state to operate as a church. Under the new law, members of the church may be able to smoke marijuana as part of its religious belief system, according to Indiana lawyer and political commentator Abdul-Hakim Shabazz, who first called attention to the marijuana church's move last week.
Shabazz told VICE News today that Indiana's new law could protect many types of behavior under the guise of religious freedom, including Native American tribes smoking peyote and Muslim prisoners being allowed to grow beards.
"It got me thinking, a lot of religions use marijuana in rituals — the Rastafarians, the Zion Coptic Church of Ethiopia — so then I did some research online and under RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] in the state of Indiana. It pretty much says that before the government can infringe on your religious liberty, it has to offer up a good argument," Shabazz said. "So now, when you arrest someone for pot possession, he can claim he's a Rastafarian and those are his religious beliefs.
"It's not a comment on RFRA, it's just pointing out that you can't say you only get religious freedom for your sake or your population, when other people can take advantage of this too," Shabazz said. "It opens up a lot of questions and issues I don't think my friends at the State House fully understand."
The law's unintended consequences may be a surprise to Pence and other legislators, who seemed surprised over the weekend at the blowback they were receiving from businesses and the public across the nation over the law.
"I just can't account for the hostility that's been directed at our state," Pence told theIndianapolis Star."I've been taken aback by the mischaracterizations from outside the state of Indiana about what is in this bill."
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Indiana Senate President David Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma held a press conference first thing Monday morning to say they would "encourage our colleagues to adopt a clarifying measure of some sort to remove this misconception about the bill."
In addition to loopholes like the potential legality of smoking marijuana, lawmakers were met with a flood of economic consequences. The CEOs of multiple companies, including Apple and Salesforce, have condemned the law, with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff announcing the company was stopping all business travel to Indiana. The consumer ratings site Angie's List, which is headquartered in Indianapolis, immediately halted its plans to build a new headquarters in the city.
"We are putting the 'Ford Building Project' on hold until we fully understand the implications of the freedom restoration act on our employees, both current and future," said Angie's List CEO Bill Oesterle in a statement.
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Sports organizations, including the NCAA and the NFL, are being called on to take their business out of Indiana following the law's passage. The NCAA, which is headquartered in Indianapolis and hosting the men's college basketball Final Four Tournament there this weekend, said it was concerned about the legislation. More than 59,000 fans signed a petition asking the NCAA to move out of the state, while former professional players including Jason Collins and Charles Barkley said the league should think twice about hosting the event in a state with legal discrimination.
A slew of other repercussions emerged over the weekend as well: openly gay actor George Takei called for a boycott of Indiana on Twitter and suggested the gaming convention Gen Con could leave the state, the cities of Seattle and San Francisco have banned city employees from traveling to Indiana on taxpayer funds, and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy said today that he's implementing a travel ban.
"Because of Indiana's new law, later today I will sign an executive order regarding state-funded travel," Malloy tweeted.
Sheila Kennedy, a longtime political commentator in Indiana politics and current professor of law and policy at Indiana University, said that the state's lawmakers were clearly not anticipating any of the consequences they are now faced with over the law intended to appeal to conservative Christians.
"The people at the State House thought, 'we'll pass this meaningless bill,' but didn't anticipate the blowback," she told VICE News.
Since Indiana has no anti-discrimination bill on its books to protect gays and lesbians anyway, the new bill protecting the right to discriminate is unnecessary, she said. The politics surrounding the bill are actually about getting even for 2014's gay marriage ruling, she said.
"There was a group of angry Christian conservatives who were used to getting their way and they were badly beaten in the fight over gay marriage. They're still smarting over that. So this was sort of a way to stick their thumb in the eye of the gay community," Kennedy said.
"Pence is stuck between rock and hard place," she said. "His base is the extreme, religious right, so he can't afford to back off now. But everybody else, including the business wing of the Republican Party, is."
Pence and other lawmakers said they will try to clarify the law this week, but they will not repeal it.