Trade Show Industry Rebukes Indiana’s Passing of Religious Freedom Restoration Act

March 31, 2015

Not only has the American Society of Association Executives and the International Association of Exhibitions and Events expressed concern about the recent passing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana, but also Visit Indy, which represents the city of Indianapolis, is worried about the act’s possible impact.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person's ability to practice his or her religion, but opponents say it opens the door to possible discrimination.

“Since February, we have opposed Indiana’s RFRA bill, a bill similar to 19 other states that have adopted the legislation,” said Chris Gahl, vice president of Visit Indy.

He added, “From the beginning, we were quick to warn the bill could cause a misperception of Indy being unwelcoming.  Coming off record-setting tourism results in 2014, we were concerned planners might not see Indy as hospitable anymore. “

Those warnings already may have caused at least one major event, Gen Con, a trade show for the gaming community, to reconsider holding its annual event in Indianapolis that draws 50,000 attendees each July.

In a letter to its attendees after several of them expressed concern about RFRA passing, the show’s manager, Adrian Swartout, said, “Governor Pence has stated that he believes the outcry against this law is based upon a misunderstanding. We respectfully disagree with this position. A significant portion of Gen Con attendees identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, and we are reading that some members of our community feel unsafe traveling to Indiana, subsequent to the passage of the RFRA law. We understand this sentiment, and will act to support safety.”

She added that they have asked Gov. Pence to support an amendment to RFRA that includes protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Gen Con has a contract in Indianapolis until 2020, but Swartout  said in the letter that they would be “halting our plans to expand Gen Con into Lucas Oil Stadium, and plans for further expansion into other hotel convention spaces” until they have assurances that there will be no discrimination of any of its attendees.

The American Society of Association Executives also sent a letter to Gov. Pence and to the majority and minority leaders of Indiana’s House and Senate asking them to adopt corrective language to RFRA.

“ASAE is committed to diversity and inclusion practices within the association industry. Laws that permit discrimination are not only regressive, they put our members at risk of being denied service anywhere from restaurants to meetings and convention facilities. This sends a harmful message that fairness, equality, and the principles of our Constitution are secondary to personal prejudice. I strongly encourage Governor Pence and Indiana policymakers to amend this legislation to include civil rights protections into the bill.”

The International Association of Exhibitions and Events also expressed its concern with RFRA in a letter sent to Gov. Pence.

“It has already become very apparent that many businesses, meetings, conventions and exhibitions have either already done so, or are considering, boycotting Indiana for current and future engagements. Such boycotts negatively impact Indiana employees who work in the hospitality, exhibitions and events industry,” said IAEE Chair Megan Tanel.

She added, “The “Hoosier State” has a decades-long reputation for delivering world-class hospitality and service to ALL visitors and attendees. IAEE and our members cannot support any legislation or actions that could lead to discrimination at any level. Nor can we support the boycotting of exhibitions, meetings and events as a weapon in this debate.”

In closing, Gahl said, “We are confident the 75,000 people who depend on tourism for a paycheck will continue to display the ‘Hoosier Hospitality’ we are known for worldwide.  No piece of paper can take away what is at the core of an Indy resident, a genuine desire to welcome. ‘Hoosier Hospitality’ is alive and well in Indy.” 

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