Indiana’s religious freedom bill among host of new laws

Indiana's religious freedom law took effect Wednesday amid an ongoing national debate over gay right
Indiana state Rep. Timothy Wesco, R-Osceola, addresses a rally of supporters of a religious freedom bill at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Feb 9, 2015.
Indiana state Rep. Timothy Wesco, R-Osceola, addresses a rally of supporters of a religious freedom bill at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Feb 9, 2015.

Just days after a historic U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, Indiana’s religious freedom law took effect Wednesday amid an ongoing national debate over gay rights and religious objections.

Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which sparked protests and boycott threats earlier this year before being quickly revised, is perhaps the most high-profile among a host of bills that become law on Wednesday, the start of the new fiscal year in most states.

Lawmakers around the country passed bills on a variety of subjects that have emerged recently as major national talking points. They include improving law enforcement tactics in the wake of deadly police confrontations, increasing scrutiny of sexual assaults on college campuses and addressing concerns posed by ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft.

Lawmakers also took a break from weightier issues to discuss expanding bingo access for senior citizens, a state motto in Latin and an official state amphibian. Highlights of the laws that will start taking effect across the country:


Since the Supreme Court’s ruling last week on marriage equality, religious conservatives have been focused on preserving their rights. In Indiana, threats to boycott the state have faded since the Republican-dominated Legislature revised its law to ensure that businesses could not use religion as a legal defense for refusing to provide services, goods, facilities or accommodations. The ACLU says it will be watching Indiana for any signs of discrimination: “This is not a new tactic,” said Evan Wolfson, president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry. “We see it every time we see the country take a step forward. We know how to balance religious freedom and nondiscrimination already.”


Among the laws taking effect Wednesday are requirements in Maryland for local law enforcement to provide the state with information about officer-involved deaths and deaths in the line of duty as part of an annual report to lawmakers. In Virginia, lawmakers are requiring campus police departments to notify local prosecutors within 48 hours of starting any investigation into possible felony sexual assault. They also are requiring university registrars to put a note on the transcript of any student who is suspended, expelled or withdraws from school for reasons related to an offense involving sexual violence.


Massachusetts and California are requiring employers to offer paid sick time. The Massachusetts law will cover an estimated one in three workers who are not currently entitled to sick days, allowing them to accrue up to 40 hours each year. Companies with 10 or fewer employees are exempt, but some small business owners with temporary and seasonal workers have expressed concerns. In California, more than six million workers are expected to benefit from the law, which requires employers to provide at least three paid sick days each year: “The fact that the largest state in the country, the most populous state in the country has enacted a paid sick leave law will show, I’m sure, that this policy is good for workers, good for business and good for the economy,” said Vicki Shabo, a vice president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.


California, Maryland and Georgia are among the latest states to impose rules on ride-share companies such as Uber and Lyft following concerns about how they handle passenger safety, monitor drivers’ backgrounds, determine fees and affect the taxicab industry. Maryland and Georgia will join other states that require the companies to perform background checks on their drivers. The ride-share companies connect people through smartphone apps that allow passengers to book and pay for a private car service. In California, drivers for the ride-sharing companies must carry a minimum level of insurance while Georgia now requires drivers to maintain insurance coverage up to $1 million.


Maryland lawmakers decided that only the state, and not local governments, can enact a law or take other action to prohibit, restrict or regulate the testing or operation of unmanned aircraft. Virginia lawmakers passed a bill that requires law enforcement agencies to obtain a search warrant for use of drones. So far, 25 states have enacted laws addressing unmanned aircraft systems, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.


In Oregon, marijuana becomes legal under state law, with retail sales beginning in October. Possession, use and growing of limited quantities will be allowed. Minnesota launches its medical marijuana program Wednesday under a new state law that limits its use to patients with certain conditions and requires it to be in pill, capsule or liquid form. A new law in Virginia provides an “affirmative defense” for epilepsy patients who have a doctor’s note to use cannabidiol oil, a cannabis derivative, for treatment.


In Minnesota, lawmakers were forced to revisit an existing law that limited the number of bingo games held by nursing homes and senior centers: “Getting between a senior citizen and their bingo card is like getting between a bear and a honeypot,” said Democratic Rep. Joe Atkins, who sponsored the bingo-reprieve law. Under the law, nursing homes and senior centers can hold as many bingo events as they want, although total prizes remain limited to $10 per game with a $200 daily maximum. “We kept the max prize limits in place, so there is no need to worry about Minnesota nursing homes becoming high-stakes gambling halls,” Atkins said.


Earlier this year, New Hampshire lawmakers opened themselves to ridicule after they mocked an effort by a fourth-grade class to name an official state raptor. Lawmakers in Vermont didn’t make the same mistake, passing a bill pushed by a ninth-grader to add a state motto in Latin. “Stella quarta decima fulgeat” — or “The 14th star shines brightly” — joins “Freedom & Unity” as an official state motto. The Latin phrase comes from a coin minted around the time Vermont became the 14th state. And in Idaho, an eight-grader’s plan to name the Idaho giant salamander the official state amphibian became law after a five-year effort.

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