This is the latest installment in a series of "Legal Geek" articles and audio segments regarding current events and trends where the geek world crosses streams with legal land. An audio version will appear on the Current Geek podcast, available for direct download here.
Welcome back to Legal Geek. This week, we take a look at how GenCon taking a political stand this week could significantly change the future of the country's largest gaming convention.
("The iconic GenCon, a haven for all gamers for decades" - courtesy gencon.com)
GenCon has been a summer convention staple in Indianapolis since 2003, when it moved from Milwaukee after outgrowing all available convention spaces in Wisconsin. The relationship has been very good for Indianapolis, which holds a lot of conventions and major sporting events but none so big as GenCon. Indianapolis has been estimated to receive over $50 Million in revenue annually from attendees of this four day convention. Indeed, Indianapolis expanded the convention center a few years ago at a cost of $275 Million primarily to accommodate the crowds of GenCon, but also to lure some other big conventions such as the NRA convention in future years.
But this week, the future of GenCon in Indy became foggy as GenCon's CEO sent an open letter to Indiana governor Mike Pence demanding his veto of religious freedom legislation passed by the Indiana legislature on Monday. The letter was also circulated on social media sites. Quoting from the letter, GenCon writes:
"Gen Con proudly welcomes a diverse attendee base, made up of different ethnicities, cultures, beliefs, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, and socio-economic backgrounds. We are happy to provide an environment that welcomes all, and the wide-ranging diversity of our attendees has become a key element to the success and growth of our convention. Legislation that could allow for refusal of service or discrimination against our attendees will have a direct negative impact on the state's economy"
Clearly, GenCon is drawing a line in the sand and threatening to leave Indianapolis over the legislation.
The legislation itself is Indiana Senate Bill 101, which would prevent state and local governments from "substantially burdening" a person's exercise of religion unless the government can prove it has a compelling interest and is doing so in the least restrictive means. Proponents of the law note that this is in compliance with the 22-year old federal religious freedom law that allowed closely held corporations like Hobby Lobby to win the recent Supreme Court decision enabling them to opt out of Obamacare provisions like those requiring coverage of contraceptives for women. Opponents of the law deem this a license for all private companies to discriminate, particularly against gays and lesbians.
Pence is a conservative republican who has already issued a statement indicating he will sign the bill into law. Although it makes sense to serve your local citizens and supporters, one wonders if the severe economic impact of losing GenCon and potentially other conventions and businesses is enough to make Pence reconsider finalizing a law he obviously believes in personally.
UPDATE: Pence signed the bill into law on Thursday, making a statement indicating that he does not believe this law authorizes discrimination in any way. However, one wonders if opposing economic and political pressure from GenCon, other companies like engine maker Cummins, and the mayor of Indianapolis will collectively be enough to make Pence consider revising or repealing the law to avoid the potential discrimination effect.
USA Today reports that 19 other states have similar laws in effect already. Thus, even if GenCon's threat to move is serious, it's unclear what, if any good alternative options are available for GenCon to move to. Should the convention move to a city and state with smaller convention center space, that would likely lead to caps on attendees and ridiculous overcrowding problems. Furthermore, the best alternatives may already have generally competing conventions like San Diego with Comic Con and Atlanta with Dragoncon. If Indiana is bad news for GenCon, the alternatives could be much less preferable.
Bottom line - GenCon going political to protect all of its diverse gamer attendees is a bold move that should be appreciated by nerd world, but the move could lead to an undesirable relocation that would negatively impact the very gamers who love to attend this convention annually. It will be interesting to see how this battle of wits plays out between now and 2020, when the current contract between Indianapolis and GenCon LLC is finished.
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Thanks for reading. Please provide feedback and legal-themed questions as segment suggestions to me on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy
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