Framing The Indiana Religious Freedom Law

In this post Nathan Palmer uses the recent controversy over the Indiana law to show us how issues are framed by social movements.

For a social movement to change people’s minds, recruit supporters, and secure the resources needed to accomplish their goals, they have to tell a great story. That is, they have to present their ideas in a way that will resonate with people and effectively communicate what they feel must be changed and why. This process within social movements is what sociologists call framing.

If you’ve ever cropped a photo and it looked a lot better, then you understand the basics of framing. Just as you can frame a photo to cut out the people in the background so that you and your friends’ smiling faces are front and center, you can also frame an issue so that some aspects of it are highlighted and other aspects are downplayed or cut out altogether. Framing is easier to understand when you see it in action, so let’s take a look at how supporters and opponents of a recently passed law in Indiana framed the legislation[1].

How Supporters Framed Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Supporters of Indiana’s RFRA champion it as a protector of religious freedom and people of faith from being forced by the government to provide services that are against their religious beliefs. Indiana Governor Mike Pence said of the law, “this is about protecting the religious liberty of people of faith and families of faith…” Supporters pointed out that many states across the country have similar RFRA laws and that the federal RFRA law was signed into law by President Clinton.

Supporters of Indiana’s RFRA law vehemently deny that it will legalize open discrimination against gays, lesbians, or any other sexual minority. Last week we saw a series of supporters attempt to argue that the law was not discriminatory during multiple live TV interviews and get grilled by their interviewers. For instance, Gov. Pence was asked more than three times by George Stephanopoulos if the law legalized discrimination and each time he dogged the question. Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council and Ryan McCann of the Indiana Family Institute are two other good examples of supporters making an exasperated defense of the law as non-discriminatory. In all three cases, the supporters seemed shocked by the accusation and reiterated that this law wasn’t about discrimination, but religious liberty.

How Opponents Framed Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Opponents of Indiana’s law framed the issue squarely on discrimination; arguing that the bill would make it legal for any individual or any corporation to deny services to non-heterosexual customers. As NPR reported, the law, “caused a firestorm of criticism from those who say the law could lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians, including businesses like Apple and Angie’s List; the NCAA, which is hosting the men’s college basketball Final Four in Indianapolis; and even other states like Connecticut, which banned state-paid travel to Indiana.”

Opponents also point out that while 19 other states have RFRA laws, Indiana’s is unique. The RFRA laws in other states have clear guidelines about when you can use religious expression as a defense, for instance in Texas you can’t use such a defense in a civil rights case. Furthermore, other state RFRA laws require that the state be a party in the lawsuit before the religious expression defense can be invoked. Which means that an individual who is being sued or prosecuted by the government can argue that their religious rights protect them from being sued or prosecuted. However, the Indiana law was worded so that an individual or corporation could invoke the defense if they were sued by another individual.

Finally, the opponents of Indiana’s RFRA law framed the law as being antiquated or from a bygone era. For instance, Hillary Clinton tweeted that it’s, “sad this new Indiana law can happen in America today.” Many opponents including Apple CEO Tim Cook compared Indiana’s RFRA law to the legalized discrimination of the Jim Crow era. This sentiment was succinctly captured in the internet meme image of a sign that read, “Now Entering Indiana. Please Turn Your Clock Back 200 years.”

Competing Frames and Social Change

In the court of public opinion, the supporters frame of the Indiana RFRA law lost. After extreme public pressure, Gov. Pence signed a law to “fix” the RFRA legislation last Thursday (although some argue the amended law still allows for discrimination against sexual minorities). As the Indiana RFRA law demonstrates, from a framing perspective social change happens when a social movement can successfully replace an old frame with a new one.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Explain in your own words what it means to frame an issue.
  2. Pick a social issue (e.g. marijuana legalization, immigration reform, police brutality, or any other issue) and discuss how it is framed in public discussions and in the media.
  3. Why do you think the supporters of Indiana’s RFRA law were unsuccessful in their attempt to frame the law as being non-discriminatory?
  4. Imagine that you are one of the leaders for a student-led social movement to make higher education more affordable and to reduce student loan debt (FYI, the total outstanding student loan debt in 2014 was $1.08 trillion). How could you frame the issue of student loan debt in a way that would resonate with the public?

  1. In this blog post I will only be looking at a few key examples that were chosen by me in a non-systematic and non-scientific way. Sociologists who research framing and social movements would collect their data in a systematic way and do a thorough scientific analysis.  ↩