Indiana Gov. Mike Pence Says Religious Freedom Law Doesn't OK Discrimination

by Erin McClam /  / Updated  / Source: NBC News

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Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana said Tuesday that he wants legislation on his desk this week to clarify that a religious freedom law there does not allow businesses to deny service to anyone.

He insisted that the law, in its current form, allows no such thing. And he said that people have “smeared” the law by claiming that it sanctions discrimination against gays or anyone else.

But he referred to a “harsh glare of criticism from around the country” since he signed the bill last week.

“We’ll fix this, and we’ll move forward,” the governor, a Republican, told reporters in Indianapolis. “I believe in my heart of hearts that no one should be harassed or mistreated because of who they are, who they love or what they believe.”

He declined to support legislation explicitly banning discrimination against gays in Indiana. “It’s not on my agenda,” he said.

Pence said that the law was meant to protect religious liberty, which he called “our first freedom.” But opponents of the law, and some social conservatives who supported it, said that it would allow businesses to turn away gay customers on religious grounds.

The outcry has included a broad spectrum of public figures. Tim Cook, the openly gay CEO of Apple, opposed it, as did Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, which is staging the Final Four in Indianapolis this week.

The Indianapolis Star ran an editorial across its entire front page on Tuesday with the giant headline: “FIX THIS NOW.”

The CEO of Angie’s List, the online listings service, which suspended plans to expand an Indiana facility because of the law, said he was encouraged by some of what Pence had to say.

If Pence makes clear that neither the religion law “nor any other Indiana law can be used to justify discrimination based upon sexual orientation or gender identity, he can fix this mess,” CEO Bill Oesterle said.

Democrats in the state Legislature were unimpressed. They repeated their call for full repeal.

Nineteen other states and the federal government have so-called religious liberty laws. The federal law was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Pence insisted on Tuesday that the Indiana law simply mirrored those measures.

But some legal experts have said that Indiana’s law opens a wider berth for discrimination, partly because it allows businesses to claim religious protection in lawsuits brought by individuals, not just against government action.

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, took issue with Pence’s comparison to the federal law. He said that the Indiana law was a “significant expansion.”

Earnest also took issue with Pence's claim that Indiana's law was rooted in a 1993 federal law. He said the Indiana measure marked a "significant expansion" over the 1993 law because it applies to private transactions beyond those involving the federal government.

Pence, a possible candidate for the Republican presidential nomination next year, said that he was proud to have signed the law, although he conceded that he could have explained it better.

In an interview Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” he failed to answer repeated direct questions about whether the law allowed discrimination against gays and whether any discrimination against gays should be legal.

The Republican leaders of the Indiana Legislature said on Monday that they would rush to clarify the law. They cited the governor’s performance on ABC as one reason.

At the press conference, Pence was asked whether a Christian business should be required to provide services for gay weddings.

He said, “I don’t support discrimination against anyone,” then said that a free society always has to conduct “a careful balancing of interests. And the facts and circumstances of each case determine the outcome.”

The governor said that Indiana has a proud tradition of inclusion. “Hoosiers are a loving, kind, generous, decent and tolerant people,” he said.

Gay marriage became legal in Indiana last October when the Supreme Court declined to review a federal appeals court ruling. Pence opposed it.

Lawmakers in Arkansas are working on a similar bill to Indiana’s, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, has said that he will sign it. The governor of North Carolina, also a Republican, said on Monday that he would not sign a similar bill there.

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