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“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Martin Luther King
The controversial passage by the state of Indiana of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) has been greeted by a firestorm of outrage because the authors of the bill targeted the potential for overt discrimination against Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, and Transgender people (LGBT). Despite pre signing admonitions from many diverse parties within the state, Governor Mike Pence (R) signed the bill into law last week. A potential dollar loss from conventions, tourism, and businesses exiting Indiana threatens state revenue in the short and long-term. Indiana does not have defined, state-level protection that prohibits discrimination against the LGBT community. (A similar RFRA bill sits on the desk of Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson.)
A national controversy has ensued with condemnation coming from political, entertainment, universities, sports, and numerous other entities. The denunciation included the Governor of Connecticut, Dannel Malloy (D), who banned any state sponsored travel to Indiana and calling Pence a “bigot.” The storm of criticism continues as Indiana’s leading newspaper, the Indianapolis Star, flashed a despairing, full front page headline that pleaded with the Governor and the legislature to “FIX IT.”
Rugby is one of the only team sports within the United States that lists many gay clubs. Currently, there are 23 in 20 US cities that define themselves by this sexual orientation. These clubs belong to the International Gay Rugby (IGR) organization, which totals 62 members throughout the world.
This past March, Bernard Lapasset, Chairman of World Rugby, signed a historic agreement with Jeff Wilson, Chairman of the IGR, (see photo below) promising that World Rugby would continue the promotion of “equality and inclusivity” globally for the sport of rugby.
The Indiana RFRA not only might have precluded businesses from offering services to individual gays – or a few gay members of a sport team – but also to discriminate against gay rugby clubs. These teams meet in the Bingham Memorial Cup (2016 next event in Nashville), the tournament named in honor of Mark Kendall Bingham, the brave, gay American rugger who died in the 9/11 plane attack that crashed in Pennsylvania.
Rugby, especially post college club rugby in America, has always been inclusive of everyone. The only questions asked of someone who calls to inquire about playing are, “Where did you play before?" And, “Do you need directions to the field for practice this midweek?’ Never asked are personal questions about religion, race, national origin, or sexual preference.
What to do about these RFRAs?
The Indiana bill was sponsored as payback by legislators that previously passed a ban on same-sex marriages, which was ruled unconstitutional. Three of the most vocal anti-gay Indiana voices (all standing behind Pence in the secret signing of the bill) gloated that its passage would “allow wedding vendors to refuse to serve same sex couples.” Wedding vendors denying service today in Indiana potentially could lead to food or lodging services being denied to gay rugby clubs tomorrow.
In 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers Jackie Robinson broke the 60-year old color line that kept blacks out of the Major Leagues. On the team’s first away game against the Cincinnati Reds, the crowd greeted Robinson with screeching catcalls and racial epithets. Dodger captain and shortstop Pee Wee Reese put his arms around Robinson’s shoulder in a memorable act of support.
For the rugby community in America, we must symbolically place our arms around the shoulders of the members of gay clubs and gay members of US rugby clubs. It will be both a gesture and a statement that proclaims we shall not tolerate discrimination to the LGBT community for any reason. It will also reinforce the position of World Rugby that our sport seeks “equality and inclusivity” abroad and, particularly…“back home again in Indiana.”