Religious freedom law’s impact worse than economic

The disingenuously named Religious Freedom Restoration Act has generated a great deal of well-deserved calumny by Hoosier businesses.

They argue that it weakens the state’s economy and point to business relocation, tourism and the ability to attract talent to the state as the chief victims of this unpopular law. I fear it is far worse than that.

Indiana has a $300 billion economy, and the actual boycott, which looks to be primarily in travel, probably runs into the tens of thousands of dollars. Business relocation to our state is likewise overhyped, never amounting to 5 percent of new jobs.

Moreover, the only deal we have clearly lost is the chance to pony up $20 million in incentives to the perennially unprofitable Angie’s List. These effects will be immeasurably small. The real damage is elsewhere.

The injury to Indiana’s reputation will be harder to fix. The chief problem is that we are now forced to defend something that didn’t need defending; the goodwill, tolerance and hospitality of Hoosiers.

Still, the real consequences of the RFRA act lie elsewhere than the measured economy; they involve trust between people and government.

A free economy relies almost wholly upon trust. Without trust, contracts are meaningless scraps of paper and trade comes to a grinding halt. The RFRA is exactly the type of legislation that erodes trust between businesses and households.

It is simply not possible to legislate the details of the inevitable tensions between culture and faith. This law divides us unnecessarily, corrodes the public discourse and lessens trust between Hoosiers of goodwill, whatever their opinions.

Second, when it is all said and done we will have wasted perhaps a quarter of this legislative session on this law and its aftermath. We actually have serious, long-term problems in Indiana that will remain unaddressed as a consequence of this. So, trust in our leadership is needlessly and deeply weakened.

Of course the law defenders will say that it has been mischaracterized by a liberal media. Maybe so, but in truth, this law is so confusing that its authors cannot agree on its purpose. Nor can they explain it clearly to a national audience.

As a consequence Indiana openly invites the ridicule and derision of a skeptical public. The bottom line is this: If you cannot explain your own laws effectively, don’t complain if others do so for you.

What is most saddening is not the erosion of trust or greater burden placed on business, but the absolute lack of purpose in RFRA. Religious freedom is alive and well in Indiana. That which is not at risk does not need restoration.

Worse still, both sides are busy contriving false victims and martyrs. We need to more aggressively and courageously avoid being distracted by those who would dishonestly divide us. I pray that this debacle gives stronger voice to those leaders who argued against this folly.

Michael Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Send comments to [email protected].