Why Nevada Couldn’t Afford a Religious Freedom Act

Nevada quietly (and wisely) says no to a controversial religious freedom act

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Nevada dodged a bullet last week, which isn’t easy when you’re pointing the gun at your own head. The state Legislature quietly put down the Nevada Protection of Religious Freedom Act and backed away. The bill would have “[prohibited] state action from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion.” If it sounds similar to the law that recently caused furor in Indiana, well, it is. Or was.

Bills AB 277 and SB 272 went to committee in mid-March, but Assemblyman Erven Nelson, one of the joint sponsors of the Assembly bill, said in an email April 3 that he had “decided not to process the bill this session.” Fellow sponsors John Ellison and Joseph Hardy also aren’t inclined to continue pursuit of the legislation, and Governor Brian Sandoval has dismissed the bills as “not necessary.” “They saw the light, probably with the help of the casino industry and common sense,” longtime Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston says. “The former is always here; the latter occasionally.”

A number of states have been considering religious freedom bills, but Indiana’s was the first to be signed into law. The Hoosier state became the focus of a national storm of indignation from those who claimed the legislation enables discrimination against gays and lesbians, as well as opens the door to other forms of inequity. Thousands of protesters assembled in Indianapolis (home to the recently concluded men’s basketball Final Four), while celebs from Miley Cyrus to Larry King and the CEOs of such high-powered companies as Apple and Yelp denounced the bill. Meanwhile, tech company Salesforce canceled programs in Indiana, and consumer website Angie’s List put expansion plans there on hold.

Governor Mike Pence initially defended the law, which he insisted was being “mischaracterized.” However, as the controversy escalated, Pence returned the bill to Indiana’s Legislature for “clarification.”

Aware of Indiana’s self-inflicted PR nightmare—and fearful of potential financial repercussions—states such as Arkansas, Georgia and Nevada chose to put the brakes on similar bills. But it’s puzzling that Nevada lawmakers would even consider such legislation, given our state’s dependence on visitor dollars, not to mention its desire to attract investment from the tech industry.

If the Silver State were to become the target of highly publicized protests similar to those in Indiana, it could be economically crippling. “We are a tourism state,” says Michael DiMengo, CEO of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada. “For people to be offended and openly discriminated against could very easily affect tourism and business.”

Indeed, the disapproval of business and tourism leaders was crucial in convincing legislators to reconsider the proposed bills. “In Nevada, the businesses, tourism and gaming properties did not want this to move forward and were opposed to these bills when they became aware of them,” says Tod Story, executive director of the Nevada ACLU. “When we talked to them, they said ‘We’ll review it,’ and the answer that came back was a resounding, ‘This is not necessary. We do not need this in Nevada.’”

Supporters of state religious freedom bills insist they’re no different than the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, but that’s not exactly true. “The federal RFRA restricts the application of the law to state action. In other words, ‘people’ can only sue the government for government action that burdens religious free exercise,” says Rebecca Gill, assistant professor of political science at UNLV. “[The latest religious freedom bills] allow ‘people’ to sue pretty much anyone for substantially burdening the right to free exercise of religion.”

Nevada already has laws that protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but Gill explains, “unlike the ‘fixed’ version of the Indiana law,” the legislation that was proposed in Carson City did not contain language specifically preventing such discrimination against the LGBT community.

For now, though, the issue is moot, and it doesn’t figure to resurface anytime soon. It appears lawmakers—especially those in Republican-controlled Legislatures such as Nevada—have learned that, in 2015, a battle between business and religion is no minor quarrel. And, as the 2016 election season looms, it’s doubtful that anyone wants a rematch.