President Wong responds to anti-gay legislation by issuing ban on Indiana travel

SF State President Leslie E. Wong issued a statement Monday banning university-funded travel to Indiana in response to that state’s recent religious freedom legislation.

No SF State funds will be appropriated to support employee or student travel, according to a mass email sent by Wong to faculty, staff and students. Travel authorized prior to Wong’s announcement will require approval from the pertinent departmental vice president.

“It is unconscionable for this great university to spend its resources in a state that attempts to legislate discrimination of any kind,” Wong said in the statement.

Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act was signed into state law by Gov. Mike Pence March 26. The law allows for-profit businesses to cite religious beliefs as a defense when sued by a private party for discrimination and has been widely interpreted to target the LGBT community.

“Although marriage equality is established in Indiana, there is not a state-wide non-discrimination law that protects queer and transgender folks from being discriminated against,” said Mitch Hymowitz, Associate Director for the Queer and Trans Resource Center. “Synonymous with President Wong, the Queer and Trans Resource Center is appalled at Governor Pence’s decision to enact the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana.”

Map illustrates states who have implemented the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. (Jourdon Ahn / Xpress)
Map illustrates states who have implemented the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. (Jourdon Ahn / Xpress)

Indiana joins 19 other U.S. states which have enacted some form of a religious freedom act. However, Indiana’s statute contains specific language in two clauses that other states do not.

First, the Indiana RFRA states that a for-profit corporation’s right to the exercise of religion matches those of individuals or churches, a result of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision in 2014. Second, it transforms a business’s exercise of religion right into a justifiable defense against a private lawsuit by another person.

“To actually read that a governor endorsed it and signed the bill—I was just flabbergasted. And to say that it was not an act of discrimination belies the language of the bill itself,” Wong said.

Gov. Pence denied that the law’s intent was to allow a “license to discriminate”, calling reports ridiculous in a news conference March 31.

“Clearly there has been misunderstanding and confusion,” Pence said, blaming reckless reporting for the national uproar. He said  the the bill would be amended to ensure it does not award businesses the right to deny services.

SF State is the first university in the U.S. to take concrete action against Indiana, home to the NCAA headquarters, although five Indiana college presidents released statements condemning the law. Wong’s statement follows San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s announcement March 28 that banned city-funded travel to Indiana on business for public employees.

“I think it’s an absolutely appropriate step that this campus has taken with our commitment to social justice,” said Associated Students, Inc. President Phoebe Dye. “I’m really proud of President Wong for issuing that statement. It’s a good, progressive step for SF State to be on this side of history.”

Wong, a member of the NCAA Division 2 President’s Council, announced he would not attend a required council meeting in April in Indianapolis. He said a copy of his announcement was sent to NCAA President Mark Emmert and to California State University Chancellor Timothy White.

SF State Athletic Director Charles Guthrie said that while there are no planned team trips to Indianapolis, the department applauded the University and President Wong for taking a strong stance against the Indiana legislation. Guthrie said that SF State athletic coaches on NCAA committees will be joining Wong’s stance and will not attend any future meetings in Indianapolis.

“It would have felt weird for me to simply offer the critique of Indiana and leave it at that, “Wong said. “We’re different than others. We ask students to have courage, when they see something wrong to say something—and I felt that I saw something that was wrong, and I decided to speak out and do something about it.”