Universities respond to Indiana legislation

Sonoma State University currently holds no position in regard to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, even as San Francisco State University stated on March 30 that no funds will be used for employee or student travel to the state. 

San Francisco State is currently the only university within the California State University to take a stance against Indiana’s controversial new law, which critics said allowed discrimination against those who identify with LGBT. President Les Wong’s decision adds the university to a multitude of corporations, cities and states which have already committed to similar action. 

Sonoma State President Ruben Armiñana said there were concerns about Indiana’s law, but expected a revision to take place soon after controversy erupted. Even as a revised version was presented Thursday in Indiana, Armiñana said he will take all opinions into account before a decision is made. 

“The emotional reaction is yes,” said Armiñana. “But once you think about it carefully, you have to be concerned about how far you go, where do you go, and how do you go. Things that sometimes make you feel good, but if you sort of uncover the layers, it’s not so good. I think this is one of those cases.”

Armiñana said Sonoma State’s expenditures to the state of Indiana are minimal to non-existent. One of the only issues is Sonoma State’s membership with the NCAA, headquartered in Indianapolis, Ind. NCAA President Mark Emmert has publicly voiced opinion against Indiana’s law and issued his concern over the Final Four and subsequent National Championship taking place in Indianapolis.  

Sonoma State pays dues and receives revenue from the NCAA, which sanctions athletic programs. Armiñana said he was concerned if action was taken, it might affect membership with the NCAA and complicate the university’s athletics. Another issue Armiñana said is many states and the federal government have similar legislation. Since 1997, 19 states have passed similar Religious Freedom Restoration Act-type legislation without public outcry. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed legislation which shares similar language as the one signed by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.  Armiñana said there is concern whether or not to take actions against all states, or even countries with discriminatory laws. 

The decision to take action against Indiana’s law, is ultimately Armiñana’s alone. Stephanie Thara, public affairs communications specialist for the California State University said universities are autonomous in their decision and do not need to consult with the university system.   Laurel Holmstrom, academic adviser for Sonoma State’s Queer Straight Alliance and Academic Senate Analyst, applauded San Francisco State’s stance, which is concurrent with the position of the Academic Senate. 

“I think universities have a role in providing a certain amount of leadership in the culture,” said Holmstrom. “Universities are supposed to be the pinnacle of intellectual society and preparing people to be good citizens in a democracy. I think part of the process is that universities should engage in these conversations if nothing else. If they do come up with a position, then they should stand up for them.”

Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as it was originally written, came under harsh scrutiny and left its defenders scrambled to justify it. Armiñana, with a deep education in political science, offered his opinion. 

“In Indiana, I think they intentionally or unintentionally drafted a bad piece of legislation,” said Armiñana. “I think they tried to make a statement on religion, but it was so flawed, it went beyond what is acceptable. They got caught intentionally being stupid or unintentionally being stupid.”

Holmstrom said Indiana’s new law highlighted how unprotected lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are across the country. She said revisions to the new law are a good first step, but further legislation is needed.  

“It is very difficult for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to hear this kind of news,” said Holmstrom. “Where we have made a lot of strides since Stonewall, it shows people can still face discrimination. It’s very disturbing to see anything like what happened in Indiana.”