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At a press conference on Tuesday morning, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) vowed “make clear” that the state’s new “religious-freedom” law cannot be used to discriminate against anyone. His statements come amid widespread claims that it does exactly that.
Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law last week. Citing the massive public backlash to the law’s passage, he called on the state’s legislature to amend the law to clarify that it does not allow businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
“It’s been a tough week here in the Hoosier State, but we’re going to move forward.”
“I’ve come to conclusion that it would be helpful to move legislation this week that makes clear this law does not give businesses the ability deny services to anyone,” Pence insisted.
At the same time, Pence insisted that the bill does not allow for discrimination in its present form.
“The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was about religious liberty, not about discrimination. Had this law been about legalizing discrimination, I would have vetoed it,” he said. “This law does not give anyone the right to discriminate. It does not give anyone a right to deny services.”
Pence pledged to add clarifying language just to be on the safe side, blaming what he labeled as grossly misleading reporting on the contents of the bill in the press. When asked, Pence declined to single out any specific news outlets that published inaccurate reporting on the bill.
“It’s been a tough week here in the Hoosier State,” he admitted, “but we’re going to move forward.”
As currently written, the bill gives greater protections to actions taken by business owners or employees based on personal, religious grounds. This could encompass a myriad of different issues, but nearly all of the controversy has swirled around the ability of a business to refuse service gay customers—for example, a florist refusing to provide flowers for the wedding of a lesbian couple. While Indiana does not have a statewide law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, many individuals cities do. Indiana’s RFRA would give businesses greater ability to argue in court that these municipal laws place an undue burden on their religious beliefs.
When, in an interview on Sunday, Pence was asked repeatedly by George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week whether or not the bill would permit that type of discrimination, Pence declined to give a direct answer.
On Tuesday, Pence did not specify what the bill’s amended language would look like. He added that he does not support giving protected status to gays and lesbians, which would make any sort of discrimination against homosexuals illegal.
Pence insisted that the bill should have been viewed as uncontroversial. He noted that, while an Illinois state senator, Barack Obama voted in favor of a similar religious freedom bill in that state. However, according to an analysis by PolitiFact, that statement is misleading. The bill Obama voted for regulated interactions between private citizens and the government. The Indiana bill, by contrast, also affects interactions between private entities (i.e. a business and its patrons) without government involvement.
All of the state bills on this issue are modeled off of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. The original legislation, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, was aimed at allowing such practices as a Muslim prison guard growing a beard even though it may run counter to other regulations. Four years later, the Supreme Court ruled that this law exclusively applied at the federal level, which triggered some 19 states to pass their own versions.
The political milieu in which the Indiana bill was signed has led many LGBT advocates to worry about the potential for discrimination. During Pence’s signing ceremony for the bill, he was flanked people who have publicly pushed strong anti-gay agendas.
Those concerns sparked a massive boycott of Indiana. Companies like Yelp and Slaesforce have announced boycotts of the state. Angie’s List has cancelled a large-scale expansion in Indianapolis. The band Wilco also cancelled a concert scheduled for Indianapolis in May. Responding to the significant outcry, the NCAA declined to the move the Final Four scheduled for early next month but sent out a strongly-worded statement expressing concern.
Other city and state government have also joined the boycott. Elected officials in Seattle, San Francisco, Washington state, and Connecticut have banned government employees from doing official business in the state.
“The governor’s not a stupid man, but he’s done stupid things and signing this law— and, quite frankly, promoting this law—knowing exactly what it was going to do was an incredibly stupid thing for him to do,” Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy told MSNBC. “[Pence] knew exactly what he was doing, and when you see a bigot, you have to call them on it.”
“This law does not give anyone the right to discriminate. It does not give anyone a right to deny services.”
While Pence said he didn’t anticipated this type of backlash when the bill was moving through the state’s legislature, some legal experts warned of serious potential negative consequences to its passage. A group of 30 law professors, a significant number of whom teach at schools inside Indiana, wrote an open letter criticizing the bill.
“[It] will more likely create confusion, conflict, and a wave of litigation that will threaten the clarity of religious liberty rights in Indiana while undermining the state’s ability to enforce other compelling interests,” they explained. “This confusion and conflict will increasingly take the form of private actors, such as employers, landlords, small business owners, or corporations, taking the law into their own hands and acting in ways that violate generally applicable laws on the grounds that they have a religious justification for doing so.”
The reaction to the bill’s passage hasn’t been exclusively negative. Some on the right have cheered the legislation. On Monday, senator and GOP presidential hopeful Ted Cruz (R-Texas) issued a statement applauding Pence’s signing and subsequent defense of the bill.
“I want to commend Governor Mike Pence for his support of religious freedom, especially in the face of fierce opposition,” Cruz said. “There was a time, not too long ago, when defending religious liberty enjoyed strong bipartisan support. Alas, today we are facing a concerted assault on the First Amendment, on the right of every American to seek out and worship God according to the dictates of his or her conscience.”
The law is scheduled to go into effect on July 1.
Photo by Gage Skidmore/flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Aaron Sankin is a former Senior Staff Writer at the Daily Dot who covered the intersection of politics, technology, online privacy, Twitter bots, and the role of dank memes in popular culture. He lives in Seattle, Washington. He joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2016.