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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Indy's way of taking care of business

Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence embraces a preschool

Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence embraces a preschool student at the Shepherd Community Center in Indianapolis on Feb. 26, 2014. Credit: AP / Tom LoBianco

If you own a catering hall, and you don't want to cater gay weddings, it would generally be easy to avoid. A large sign outside your business stating, "We don't want to do gay weddings because we think it's icky and ungodly. If forced to do so, we will provide horrible service and ruin your special day," would do the trick.

And billboards stating, "We hate black people," outside the entrance of a business, or, "Jews go home," or, "We pray five times a day Muslims will stay away," will likely free entrepreneurs from rubbing elbows with their disliked groups.

But one of the problems with so baldly stating one's prejudices is that a mean sign about gay people also would drive away everyone who has gay friends, gay family members, gay co-workers, . . . or who has decency in his or her heart. And I'd be out in the parking lot taking pictures of the customers who did want to do business with bigots and posting them on a website with a catchy name like

In Indiana, a law was recently signed that gives business owners the right to refuse service to certain customers to uphold the owners' religious beliefs. Such laws are entirely political. They're not meant to protect anyone against anything real, except this newfangled modern world.

Passing them gives cynical politicians (or worse, true believers) the opportunity to stand up for the abstract idea that it's still OK to discriminate, as long as you feel you've got God on your side.

But there are not, in real life, many businesses looking to drive away customers, regardless of personal biases. And there are not, in real life, many gay people eager to spend money with anti-gay business owners, or black people who want to drop their hard-earned cash in racist-owned establishments, or Jews who want to enrich anti-Semites.

There was a time when this was less true. There was a time when prejudice and hatred were largely acceptable, and a business could bar entire cohorts of society and prosper. That's what segregating lunch counters in the South, for instance, was about.

But that's mostly not true anymore.

I'm not the first person to make the point that a law like the one in Indiana could easily be used, if you found the right religion, to keep anyone away. You could claim a spiritual distaste for mixed-race weddings, or ban stompers at your disco whose lack of rhythm is an affront to the Lord of the Dance, or nix from your breakfast spot open-mouthed chewers whose manners are an affront to common decency. State leaders say they're going to revisit the law to make sure its intent is clear, but right now it's the extreme clarity of the intent that's causing the state problems.

And to actually have someone be deprived of a right, it's not enough to just have a biased owner who wants to turn away business or to just have a customer who wants to press coin upon someone who despises them just to prove a point. You'd have to have both, together. How often, really, is it going to come up?

So Indiana passed a terrible law that's now blowing up the business prospects of the state for the foreseeable future as companies and organizations from all walks of life call out the state, but there's no real problem the terrible law addresses.

Yet there are real problems in Indiana: About 22 percent of its children live in poverty, 2,000 bridges are structurally deficient and average income ranks 38th in the nation.

Perhaps state legislators pandering to a bigoted base and (rumors say) presidential hopeful and Republican Gov. Mike Pence can address those issues after they've vanquished their crucial, imaginary gay-wedding-reception problem.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.