Indiana Gov. Mike Pence: ‘Not going to change’ religious freedom law

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence defended his state’s new religious freedom law Sunday (March 29) while refusing to say if it would allow discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Facing a rising tide of criticism and business boycotts against his state, Pence said he would consider a second law that “amplifies and clarifies” the first one but added, “We’re not going to change the law.”

“We have suffered under this avalanche for the last several days of condemnation, and it’s completely baseless,” Pence said on ABC’s This Week. “This isn’t about disputes between individuals. It’s about government overreach.

“I’m working hard to clarify this,” Pence said. “We’re reaching out to business leaders.”

The law Pence signed Thursday prohibits state or local governments from substantially burdening a person’s ability to exercise their religion — unless the government can show that it has a compelling interest and that the action is the least restrictive way to achieve it. It takes effect July 1.

On Saturday (March 28), thousands of people gathered in downtown Indianapolis to protest the law that critics say could allow discrimination against gays and lesbians. And business leaders have balked, led by Indianapolis-based Angie’s List, which put off a planned $40 million expansion.

The governor’s effort to quell the firestorm over the state’s religious freedom restoration act did little to mollify gay rights organizations convinced that the law would allow businesses to refuse to serve gays and lesbians.

“Governor Pence’s calls for a clarification of this destructive bill are phony unless the legislation guarantees explicit non-discrimination protections for LGBT Hoosiers and includes a clear civil rights carve-out,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said on ABC that the law “appears to legitimize discrimination” despite Pence’s claims that it is modeled after laws signed by President Clinton at the federal level in 1993 and supported by then-state senator Barack Obama in Illinois.

“If you have to go back two decades to try to justify something you are doing today, it may raise some questions about the wisdom of what you’re doing,” Earnest said. “Governor Pence is in damage control mode this morning, and he’s got some damage to fix.”

The Democratic National Committee sought to tie Pence’s stand to statements made earlier by Republicans running, or likely to run, for president — including Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio.

The Supreme Court has weighed in on religious freedom recently but has not specifically resolved the question of what private businesses with religious objections can and cannot do when it comes to serving gays.

The justices ruled last year in the Hobby Lobby case that companies cannot be forced to offer health insurance coverage for certain birth control methods they equate with abortion. The court’s conservative majority said the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects closely held for-profit corporations — those controlled by a limited number of shareholders — from the contraception mandate in President Obama’s health care law.

But the court refused to consider a New Mexico photography studio’s challenge to a lower court ruling that it could not refuse to shoot a same-sex wedding for religious reasons. And the court has not ruled on the legality of state religious freedom laws — something that could be the next wave of legal challenges following this spring’s upcoming decision on gay marriage.

On Sunday’s nationally televised show, host George Stephanopoulos — who worked for Clinton when the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed — asked Pence repeatedly if the law would let merchants discriminate against gays and lesbians. Of particular concern is whether businesses that serve weddings — such as photographers, florists and bakers — could refuse to participate in same-sex weddings.

Each time, Pence avoided the question and accused the media and outside groups of an “avalanche of intolerance that’s been poured on our state.”

“When you see these headlines about Indiana, a license to discriminate in Indiana … it is a red herring, and I think it’s deeply troubling to millions of Americans and, frankly, people all across the state of Indiana who feel troubled about government overreach,” Pence said.

He said he would not recommend adding sexual orientation as a protected class under the state’s civil rights laws — something that some other states with similar religious freedom laws have in place.

“I will not push for that,” Pence said. “That’s not on my agenda.”

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