Religious Freedom Restoration Act: What You Need to Know

A furor has erupted over an Indiana law that opponents say could give businesses the right to refuse service to gay people. And the controversy is reaching its height just as the Final Four comes to town.

The drafters of the law say that it was meant to protect free exercise of religion. Gov. Mike Pence, a possible Republican presidential candidate, has said that he might be open to clarifying the intent of the law.

On the other side are public figures as varied as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Miley Cyrus and the chief executive of Apple.

Here's what you need to know:

BASICS

The law is known as Senate Bill 101. Pence signed it into law last week. It takes effect July 1. You can read the full bill here.

The text says that the state cannot "substantially burden a person's exercise of religion" unless it is furthering a "compelling government interest" and acting in the least restrictive way possible.

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Republican leaders of the Indiana Legislature told reporters on Monday that the law does not permit discrimination. They suggested that they would work quickly on clarifying language.

Rep. Brian Bosma, the speaker of the state House, said that the law does not allow discrimination against "any segment of the Hoosier community." He said that lawmakers would be willing to "put an exclamation point on that."

HISTORY

Nineteen states have similar laws. They are modeled after a federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

It passed the House without objection and cleared the Senate by a vote of 97-3. Clinton said at the time that the law subjects the federal government to "a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone's free exercise of religion."

Gov. Mike Pence, R-Ind.
Bill Clark | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images
Gov. Mike Pence, R-Ind.

CONTEXT

Gay marriage has been legal in Indiana since last October, when the Supreme Court declined to take up a challenge to a federal appeals court ruling. Indiana does not have a state law specifically protecting gay people from discrimination.

As The Washington Post pointed out over the weekend, the other 19 states that passed so-called religious freedom laws did so before gay marriage became legal in most of the country.

Read MoreWhat did Miley Cyrus just call Indiana's Governor?

Last February, then-Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona vetoed a similar law. "I sincerely believe that Senate Bill 1062 has the potential to create more problems than it purports to solve," she said at the time.

The backlash against the proposed law in Arizona was severe, and mirrors what is happening in Indiana. The NFL was even said to be considering moving the Super Bowl out of the state.

DEFENSE

Social conservatives say that the law would stop the government from compelling people to do things they object to on religious grounds, like catering or providing flowers for a gay wedding.

Daniel O. Conkle, an Indiana University law professor who supports both the law and gay marriage, offered a defense in an essay for The Indianapolis Star.

Applying this test, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that a Muslim prisoner was free to practice his faith by wearing a half-inch beard that posed no risk to prison security. Likewise, in a 2012 decision, a court ruled that the Pennsylvania RFRA protected the outreach ministry of a group of Philadelphia churches, ruling that the city could not bar them from feeding homeless individuals in the city parks.

Indiana Right to Life and the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List have also come out in support of the law.

Pence told The Indianapolis Star on Saturday that he was in talks with legislators and that a clarification could come this week. On Sunday, he gave a lengthy interview to ABC's "This Week" and defended the bill.

He said it was a "red herring" to suggest that the law is a license to discriminate. "This isn't about disputes between individuals; it's about government overreach," he said. "And I'm proud that Indiana stepped forward."

But he sidestepped direct questions on whether the law sanctions discrimination. George Stephanopoulos, the anchor, then asked him: "Yes or no, should it be legal to discriminate against gays and lesbians?"

Pence answered:

George, you're — you're following the mantra of the last week online, and you're trying to make this issue about something else. What I am for is protecting, with the highest standards in our courts, the religious liberty of Hoosiers. I signed the bill. We're going to continue to explain it to people that don't understand it. And in — and if possible, we will find a way to amplify what this bill really is in a legislative process. But I stand by this law.

BACKLASH

Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, expressed concern last week about "how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees." He hinted that the NCAA might have second thoughts about future events in Indiana.

College basketball's Final Four begins in Indianapolis on Saturday night. The tourism organization Visit Indianapolis told Forbesthat the economic impact is more than $70 million.

Elsewhere, the outcry has been widespread. Tim Cook, who as CEO of Apple is the most prominent openly gay corporate official in America, published an Op-Ed in The Washington Post describing laws like Indiana's as "very dangerous."

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"These bills rationalize injustice by pretending to defend something many of us hold dear," he wrote. "They go against the very principles our nation was founded on, and they have the potential to undo decades of progress toward greater equality."

Angie's List said it was canceling a proposed expansion in Indianapolis. Miley Cyrus, in an Instagram post, used an expletive to refer to the governor and said: "The only place that has more idiots that Instagram is in politics."

Among other prominent opposition:

The Associated Press contributed to this report.