SHA 2015 and Indiana’s RFRA

Since the Indiana legislature’s passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in March, the SHA partners have been in discussion about holding SHA 2015 in Indianapolis. This week, we made the decision to stay with our original plan to again host SHA in Indianapolis, its home since 2004.

SHA Coordinator John Durel communicated our deliberations and final outcome to the SHA Faculty in two emails, one on March 31, the second on April 7. Those emails are below.



Dear Faculty and Supporters of SHA:

I am writing to let you know that in light of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) recently passed by the State of Indiana, the SHA partners are considering moving the location of the seminar to another state.

Our main concern is that Indiana’s existing laws do not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The new law gives legal ground for a person or business to refuse to serve LGBT individuals based on religious objections. It makes it more likely that in discrimination cases a court would rule in favor of the person asserting the exercise of religion.

As historians and preservers of our past, we value the rights guaranteed to all citizens by our constitution, and we understand that there have been times when people have had to take a stand to defend those rights. This may be such a time.

Using an example from the history of racial integration, and an analysis of the text of RFRA, Garrett Epps in the Atlantic asserts that “this new statute hints most strongly that it is there to be used as a means of excluding gays and same-sex couples from accessing employment, housing, and public accommodations on the same terms as other people.” Indiana Governor Pence denies this was the intent, and as I’m writing this he has called on the legislature to clarify the act.

As we proceed we are taking into consideration:

  • Our longstanding relationship with the Indiana Historical Society. We have been in touch with John and Kyle and they understand the need for the Partners to consider a move.
  • If we do make a move it would be initially for only 2015. If the Indiana RFRA is repealed, modified, or found unconstitutional, we would consider returning to Indy.
  • We would only move to a state that recognizes same-sex marriage and includes sexual orientation and gender identity in their anti-discrimination laws.

We are also watching as things unfold on the ground in Indy. The Indianapolis City/County has passed a resolution opposing RFRA, stating that it does not truly represent the city as an inclusive and welcoming place. The CEOs of  the nine largest Indiana-based corporations, including Eli Lilly, have sent a letter to the governor and legislative leaders urging them to immediately enact “new legislation that makes it clear that neither the Religious Freedom Restoration Act nor any other Indiana law can be used to justify discrimination based upon sexual orientation or gender identity.”  If the legislature should act quickly, we will take this into consideration.

Thanks for your support of SHA. If you have thoughts or feelings that may help us make a decision, we welcome them. I anticipate that we will make a decision this week.



Dear Faculty and Supporters of SHA:

A week ago I wrote to let you know that the SHA partners were considering moving the seminar to a new city because of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed by the Indiana state legislature. Because of changes made to the act late last week, the partners have now decided to stay in Indianapolis.

Here’s the background:

The City of Indianapolis has had a human rights ordinance since 2005 which includes sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. RFRA threatened to override the City’s ordinance, allowing a person to discriminate against LGBT individuals by citing “religious freedom.” Swift action by the city’s civic, corporate and cultural leaders forced the governor and legislative leaders to amend the law, so that now it cannot take precedence over any pre-existing local law.

John Herbst says that pressure from the outside – cancellations and threatened  boycotts – was essential. In one news article he is quoted: “Organizers of Developing History Leaders at the Seminar for Historical Administration, a prestigious conference for the nation’s top historical museum leaders hosted by the Indiana Historical Society every year, are ‘seriously considering’ pulling out of Indianapolis and relocating to St. Paul., Minn.”

RFRA may still allow discrimination against LGBT individuals in other parts of the state – the courts will ultimately decide. As part of the negotiations this past week the Republican leaders in the house and senate have agreed to allow a bill to be presented at the next session that would protect LGBT individuals from discrimination statewide. Only 19 states plus DC offer such protection. It seems unlikely to pass in Indiana, but it’s one more step forward.

Staying in Indy provides SHA with a way to support the people in the state who are working for change. We have longstanding relationships with the Indiana Historical Society and other cultural organizations, many having active programming in support of the LGBT community. Indeed, this whole episode may offer us a case study to discuss the ‘politics’ of leading history organizations.

So pack your bags for Indy. I look forward to seeing you in the fall.

Posted on April 8, 2015, in Seminar for Historical Administration, SHA, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on SHA 2015 and Indiana’s RFRA.

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