Editor’s Note: Indiana’s passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in March immediately sparked criticism that the bill would allow private business to discriminate against LGBT individuals. Teacher Brad Layman describes how the bill, though disappointing to his students, also spurred an unexpected wave of support for them.
When the students I teach heard about Indiana’s religious freedom law, many felt let down by our state leaders.
As the teacher sponsor for the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at a small school of about 500 students in a rural town in north central Indiana, I try to build a tolerant learning atmosphere that helps all students feel welcome and accepted, a key ingredient to engaging students.
Seeing all of the headlines in the national media made my students worried about how this law would affect everyone in our state. Many of them thought that this was going to be a major step backward for our community because it seemed to open the possibility of refusing services to people based on their sexual orientation. They wanted to believe the governor when he stated that the law wasn’t about discrimination, but his vague responses to questions on this topic left them worried that discrimination could still happen in our state. One student even wondered if the RFRA was an act of reprisal by our legislative leaders after a gay marriage ban was lifted last year.
This fear is deeply personal for my students, some of whom have been raised to believe that religion and LGBTQ equal rights cannot coexist. While not all of the local churches in our community reject gay marriage, many LGBTQ students have been told that churches cannot accept their lifestyle. It is a challenging task for these students to understand that some people in their own community have a problem with their identity.
But unexpectedly, the law inspired a backlash that was even more meaningful to them than the bill itself.
Students heard many Indiana leaders say that Indiana is a welcoming and tolerant state and that Hoosiers are welcoming and tolerant of all people. Our students read on Twitter and other websites that business leaders, university leaders, political leaders and celebrities were denouncing the law. CEOs of major companies such as Angie’s list, Apple and Eli Lilly and Company criticized the law. The NCAA raised the question of whether Indianapolis would be a suitable site for future events like the Final Four of men’s college basketball. Each day after the law was signed, students came into school asking, “Did you see who else is against the RFRA?!” They felt supported by these leaders, and it was important for them to see they have allies.
My social studies classes often discuss how social movements start with unpopular decisions from the government and authority figures of the time. Police abuse of gay men at the Stonewall Inn in New York City intensified the gay rights movement. In Selma, Alabama, a march that became known as Bloody Sunday inspired thousands more to join a second march.
Even as we make steps as a nation in our laws and culture toward acceptance for the LGTBQ community, there will be setbacks. I hope my students, the next generation of leaders in this country, hear the message that we can be most constructive if we advocate for equal treatment and respect others. Hate only breeds more hate; being respectful is how we engender respect from others.
Brad Layman teaches world history, sociology and psychology and sponsors the Gay-Straight Alliance at Wabash High School in Wabash, Indiana.