The debate over Indiana’s new religious freedom law illustrates an increasingly tough challenge for Republican Party politicians who are caught between growing national support for gay rights among most Americans and the large bloc of deeply religious GOP voters who are wary of policy changes like same-sex marriage.
Many Republicans have conceded that national acceptance of gay marriage is inevitable, with court rulings across the country striking down same-sex marriage bans. But social conservatives say that the next front in their fight should be to protect religious freedom, arguing that people of faith who oppose same-sex unions should not be required to take actions that in effect condone gay marriage.
Indiana social conservatives have been pushing for the adoption of a specific provision to defend religious freedom, and Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, signed one into law last week. But the resulting national backlash – including from big business organizations – showed that the religious freedom argument may no longer be an easy way for Republicans to balance the views of gay rights backers and Christian conservatives.
Entertainers and actors have blasted the state, arguing the law in effect allows discrimination against gay people. So have a number of liberal politicians, mostly notably Hillary Clinton.
But perhaps most significantly to both Pence and the Republican Party, which seeks to cast itself as very-pro-business, a number of major companies have attacked the law, including an impassioned critique from Apple CEO Tim Cook.
“We have never seen reactions like this, we never expected that,” said David Long, a Republican leader in the Indiana State Senate, which overwhelmingly approved the provision.
The issue has now become split along partisan lines. In a message on Twitter, Clinton wrote, "Sad this new Indiana law can happen in America today."
But when asked about it on Monday, four Republican presidential candidates, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, all endorsed the provision.
"When you're asking someone who provides professional services to do something, or be punished by law, that violates their faith, you're violating that religious liberty that they have," said Rubio in an interview on Fox News.
In an discussion with the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Bush said, "I think once the facts are established, people aren't going to see this as discriminatory at all."
Pence and other Indiana Republicans have suggested the law was not intended to target people who are gay.
"If I saw a restaurant owner refuse to serve a gay couple, I wouldn't eat there anymore," Pence said.
But some key supporters of the provision have been explicit about its aims.
“Christian businesses and individuals deserve protection from those who support homosexual marriages and those who support government recognition and approval of gender identity (men who dress as women),” reads a message praising the law on the website of the Indiana group Advance America.
The executive director of Advance America attended the bill signing Pence hosted on Thursday at the governor’s office.
Advance America notes the law is important because “Christian bakers, florists and photographers should not be punished for refusing to participate in a homosexual marriage!” and “A church should not be punished because they refuse to let the church be used for a homosexual wedding.”
Pence has avoided such language. At the same time, he has long been closely allied with conservative Christian groups. And Pence and Indiana lawmakers rejected the idea of inserting provisions into the law that would have specifically added protections for people who are gay.
The national controversy over the law seems to have caught him by surprise. Pence has defended the law by noting that 19 states have religious freedom protections, as does the federal government.
The law’s opponents note that the Indiana law appears to have a broader scope than those other provisions. But the biggest challenge for Pence and Republicans is that the political climate is so different from when most of the other religious freedom laws were adopted.
When Bill Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, it was at a time when both liberals and conservatives were angered with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that had allowed the firings of two Native Americans who had used the drug peyote as part of a religious ceremony.
Religious freedom is now being invoked mainly by Christian conservatives against liberal causes. The Supreme Court last year defended the move by the company Hobby Lobby to refuse to offer some kinds of contraception to its employees because it was against the religious beliefs of the company’s owners.
And with the Indiana law, religious freedom is being pitted against one of the most powerful movements in today’s America: gay rights.
A recent Pew Research Center poll showed about 54 percent of Americans support same-sex unions, compared to 39 percent in 2008.
Perhaps just as significantly, in Silicon Valley, where some of the fastest-growing companies in the U.S. are based, acceptance of gay rights is almost universal.
Major sporting organizations have also become increasingly wary of any kind of policies that appear to discriminate against the LGBT community. The Indianapolis-based NCAA and the owner of the Indiana Pacers have both expressed concern over the Indiana provision.
"We have never seen reactions like this, we never expected that"
But the Republican Party has a huge bloc of older, more religious voters who are more opposed to gay rights than other Americans. A recent Pew poll found that 71 percent of white evangelicals and 68 percent of Republicans say that wedding-related businesses should be allowed to refuse to provide services to same-sex couples. (The broader public is divided, with 47 percent saying businesses should be able to refuse services, while 49 percent say businesses should be required to offer services to same-sex couples.)
Among those in the “Silent Generation,” born from 1928 to 1945, only about 35 percent support gay marriage, compared to 67 percent of millennials.
This divide between Christian conservatives and the rest of the electorate is not simply a problem for Pence, who is considering a 2016 presidential run. Other prominent Republicans are being pressed by social conservatives to push back against the growing national support of gay marriage, and at the same time those, including some Republicans, who say opposition to same-sex marriage is outdated.
So far, the Republicans are aligning with their party's base. All say marriage is between a man and a woman and none of them have distanced themselves from the Indiana religious freedom provision.
"Gov. Pence has done the right thing," Bush said.