A tax service turned away a gay couple. Both sides claim discrimination
Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry has harsh words concerning RFRA.
INDIANAPOLIS – Bailey Brazzel and her wife Samantha weren't trying to make a political statement last week. They were just trying to file their taxes.
But when the owner of an Indiana tax service refused to help because the same-sex couple was married, Brazzel said she felt she had to make some noise.
"I went in there to have my taxes done, not push my beliefs on her," said Brazzel, 25. "It's not professional to me to turn someone away because they do something differently than you would like."
Nancy Fivecoate, owner of Carter Tax Service in Russiaville, Indiana, said she's been harassed and abused after Brazzel spoke to media and posted on Facebook about her experience. Fivecoate said she is the one being persecuted for her beliefs.
"I've never repeated her name to anyone ... I haven't answered social media," said Fivecoate during a phone conversation. "I've done absolutely nothing except (follow) my religious beliefs. I cannot put my name on that return."
This is the latest skirmish in a culture war ignited by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. There have been controversies involving cake bakers, pizza-makers and now a tax preparer who have refused to serve same-sex couples based on the religious beliefs of business owners and employees.
That's allowed under state law, unless a local ordinance says otherwise.
Brazzel said Fivecoate has prepared her taxes for the last four years. She and Samantha married in July. This is the first year they filed a joint tax return.
They went to Fivecoate's office Tuesday and she turned them away.
"My taxes don't have anything to do with our marriage," Brazzel said. "If you are going to run a business, you should be professional enough to do business with people from all types of backgrounds."
Fivecoate said she was polite and respectful to the couple. She gave them the name of another tax service who would help them.
"I am a Christian and I believe marriage is between one man and one woman," Fivecoate said in an emailed statement. She said she has prepared taxes for gay clients, but that she objects to same-sex marriage.
"The LGBT want respect for their beliefs, which I give them. I did not say anything about their lifestyle. That is their choice. It is not my choice. Where is their respect for my beliefs?"
Steve Sanders, associate professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, called the dispute a "symptom of the larger controversy surrounding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act."
"The sort of general principle of American law is a business is free to refuse to serve anybody they want for whatever reason except for where the law has provided specific protections," said Sanders.
The question here, Sanders said, is should business owners be allowed to refuse service based on religious beliefs?
In most parts of Indiana, including the Russiaville address where Fivecoate's business is located, there is no law that would prohibit a business from turning away a gay couple because of their sexual orientation.
Indianapolis, Carmel and other cities have local ordinances that prohibit employers, landlords and business owners from discriminating against gay people.
In the spring of 2015, Indiana's then-Gov. Mike Pence, now the vice president, signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that drew intense controversy to the state.
The law, known as RFRA, bars the government from infringing on a person's ability to practice his or her religion unless the government can prove it has a compelling reason for doing so. That includes the right to turn away some customers.
The law was passed by a Republican-majority Legislature and lauded by religious conservatives. Others, including the LGBTQ and business communities, voiced forceful objections, saying it allowed discrimination and would drive companies away from Indiana.
Bowing to intense national criticism, lawmakers passed a "fix" to RFRA that made it clear that it could not be used to dilute local ordinances that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
RFRA only applies in areas where the government tries to prevent discrimination, Sanders said, noting it would not apply to the Russiaville tax service where there is no ordinance.
In the absence of any protection law, Sanders said Brazzel's only recourse was to go public.
"In a free market, we want to know as much as possible about the businesses we patronize," Sanders said, noting the media attention will hurt the tax service with some while boosting it with others.
Brazzel said she and her wife went to another tax service and filed their taxes. Even if the law doesn't agree, Brazzel said she and her wife were victims of discrimination.
"It was shocking to us," Brazzel said. "We hear about it all the time but nothing like that ever happened to us."
Fivecoate said everyone deserves respect, and she should not be forced to do something that runs counter to her beliefs.
"I have my religious beliefs, she has hers," Fivecoate said. "I respect hers, she should respect mine."
Follow Vic Ryckaert on Twitter: @VicRyc