Editor’s note: On the first Sunday after the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed, the Indiana Daily Student sent 11 reporters to six churches across southern Indiana.
Atop a hill in the countryside of Bedford, Ind., Dive Christian Church radiates Evangelical tradition. There are no flashing lights here, no band and no strangers.
This is the world of state Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford. To Indiana, and to the nation, he is a co-author of a reviled piece of legislation. Here, on Palm Sunday, he is family.
This is where Senate Bill 101 was born — in the church pews.
Light streams through the yellow, blue and red stained glass. A microphone points to the pulpit. Pastor Johnny Johnson doesn’t need it. He preaches from the Book of John with large hand gestures, bold inflection and a southern drawl.
“The gates of hell shall not be able to prevail against the fact that he is the Christ, the son of the living God,” Johnny says. “If you don’t believe it, look what’s happening in our society. Same-sex marriage and all of these things. Have you paid any attention to the news this past week?”?
Away from the protests and rallies and politicians on morning talk shows, churchgoers at Community Church of Greenwood take their seats. But on Sunday, the church’s most famous parishioner, Gov. Mike Pence, is not in attendance.
“He goes here?” a woman asks.
“I’ve never met him,” says another.
During the service, Pence is on “This Week,” dodging questions from George Stephanopoulos.
This is a church where sweater-adorned children walk alongside parents who clutch bulletins and Bibles. This is a church that ?offers gluten-free communion wafers and belts praise hymns with a rock band. “Real church for real people,” a worship leader says.
The church’s website has videos of sermons past, ranging from prayer to faith and friendship to sexuality.
On the Sunday after Pence signed the RFRA into law, igniting a visceral response around the country, there will be no mention of politics in the sermon.
Not today. It is Palm Sunday, Pastor Bill Turner says, and “that trumps all.”
In Bloomington, little boys and girls chase each other with their palm branches as they wait to enter the sanctuary at First United Methodist Church.
“Please wave your branch from side to side, not into each other,” says Alex Lamb, director of the children’s ministries.
A curly-haired 9-year-old scoffs at the children using the miniature slide.
Holding their palm branches, the girl and her mother walk into the sanctuary together. The girl’s other mother is not at the service.
“‘Hosanna, loud hosanna,’ the little children sing.”
The curly-haired girl plays with her palm branch during the hymns. She braids the smaller leaves, and her mom helps her fold the larger ones into crosses.
The Rev. Mark Fenstermacher welcomes the congregation by briefly addressing the RFRA.
“Open hearts, open minds, open doors,” Fenstermacher says. “We are an open, welcoming community.” The congregation members nod.
Brent Steele sits at the head of a table, arms crossed, staring off into space. He’s teaching Sunday School today. He is 68, and his legislative session ends Friday.
After that, it’s back to practicing law in Bedford and performing his duties as an elder at Dive Christian Church.
Behind him, a white board says in bright green ink:
“RFRA — Senate Bill 101: If you’re going to object, you owe yourself the intellectual honesty to be logical and ?consistent.”
Brent is tired. He forgets a name while discussing Palm Sunday with the adults around the table.
“I’m brain-dead. ... Someone help me out here.”
One of the men offers a name.
“Ah, yes,” Brent says with a nod. “Pontius Pilate.”
Here, the senator is with family. He need not explain his politics, but he does ?anyway.
He believes in SB 101. So does his family.
Back in Bloomington, the Universalist Rev. Mary Ann Macklin begins with a metaphor about how jazz, in its improvisation and inclusiveness, is similar to church and life.
“Right now, the state of Indiana is struggling a little bit about what it means to be inclusive rather than exclusive,” Macklin says.
The audience chuckles knowingly and nods sadly.
Macklin mentions the RFRA by name and calls on the congregation to be, as Hoosiers, strong in their cores — to know what they can do to make a difference. As she calls upon guest Phil Cooper to explain the bill in further detail, she holds up a sign for everyone to see.
On one side, in bright white letters against a blue background, it says, “Liberty for all Hoosiers.” On the other, “Freedom Indiana.” She keeps it raised, a smile across her face, her arms strong.
Across town, Pastor Tom Ellsworth preaches at Sherwood Oaks Christian Church about Jesus and the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane.
Peter sliced off the ear of a Roman soldier and Jesus healed him. The last miracle he performed before crucifixion was for an enemy.
“It doesn’t matter who the person is, what they believe, or what they’ve done,” Ellsworth says. “Compassion, mercy and kindness is always appropriate. Isn’t that what ?Jesus wants?”
The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church in Bloomington is no place for politics on Palm Sunday. It’s too soon, the Rev. Dennis ?Laffoon says.
Many members of the congregation are still trying to make sense of it. He is concerned the bill will turn businesses away from Indiana. He wants the state to be a place where everyone who comes feels welcome.
“Where the rubber meets the road is what people ?actually do with it,” Laffoon says of the bill.
Back in Bedford, Brent leads a Bible study of 14 men and women.
Two of Brent’s sons join him at the table.
Opening the class, Brent calls for prayer requests, adding one of his own.
“I am praying for our governor and legislators, who are under pressure right now,” Brent says. “There is a lot of misinformation out there and intellectual inconsistencies.”
Here, in Brent’s world, church and state coexist.
“Head of NCAA concerned? Really?” the board behind him reads. “Did he mention the other 19 states, some of whom are hosting NCAA games? NO — The truth didn’t fit his agenda.”
At Sherwood Oaks, U.S. Rep. Todd Young, R-Bloomington, takes the stage.
Not as a politician, but as a churchgoer.
“Every day beautiful, miraculous things happen across this country, really across the world,” Young says regarding the church’s recent lifting of its debt. “They don’t happen on account of directives or dictates coming from men and women. Instead they come from godly people.”
Nine elders, one fireman and one pastor take the stage to burn the church’s mortgage papers. The smell of smoke and scorched paper follows Young out after the doxology and the final amen.
The sanctuary is mostly emptied. Someone asks Young about SB 101.
He is kind but clear. This isn’t the place to talk about it.
Brent’s grandchildren enter the basement as he wraps up his Sunday School lesson.
Brent greets his grandchild. An adult asks how often this law will even be applied.
“I can’t imagine it’ll be used a lot,” he says. “All it does is set a standard.”
“Courage, courage, courage,” hum the Universalists in a harmonizing chorus. Voices add the words “freedom” and “respect.”
“Courage, freedom, respect,” Macklin says. “I hope this song will sing in your hearts as you go forward this week.”
Another speech. Another song. Macklin holds her “Freedom Indiana” sign aloft.
“And for all who seek the right path — may the songs sing well in your heart and may the improvisations be full of respect, courage and ?freedom,” Macklin says.
As the Greenwood church crowd disperses, one woman turns to another, Bible in hand. She says her friends had been “Christian-bashing” because of RFRA.
Nearby, 24-year-old Becca Piquard says the new divisive law has not been openly discussed in their church community, but she had thought about it herself. She was mulling the logistics in her head. It seemed to make sense.
Citing religious beliefs, it is a reasonable objection for a wedding cake baker, she says, to refuse services to gay couples.
“I think it’s kind of good.”
The curly-haired girl at United Methodist in Bloomington — the one with two moms — finishes folding the palm leaf. She holds it up to the light filtering in through the enormous stained glass window.
“It’s a heart,” she says, ?smiling.
Reported by Hannah ?Alani, Carley Lanich, Michael Majchrowicz, Jamie Zega, Erica Gibson, Alexa Chryssovergis, Anicka ?Slachta, Matthew Bloom, Hannah Fleace, Samantha Schmidt, Kathryn Moody.
Compiled by ?Hannah Alani