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'Shameless': Indiana Gov. Defends Controversial Religious Freedom Law

"This is not about discrimination. This is about empowering people to confront government overreach," Pence said Sunday.
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/ Source: NBC News

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence continued Sunday to try to counteract the deluge of criticism against a controversial law aimed at protecting people's religious freedoms, saying it wasn't intended to make it easier for them to discriminate against same-sex couples.

Pence said the backlash was fed by "shameless rhetoric" and "a tremendous amount of misinformation and misunderstanding" about the law.

"This is not about discrimination. This is about empowering people to confront government overreach," Pence said on ABC's "This Week."

Critics have spoken out against Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act since Pence signed it into law Thursday. Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook wrote in a Washington Post op-ed published Sunday night that the nation's biggest company would oppose similar laws in any other states.

The Indiana measure prohibits legislation that "substantially burdens" a person's ability to follow his or her religious beliefs.

Opponents argue that the law could give legal cover to businesses that refuse service to members of the LGBT community. The NCAA, based in Indianapolis, has expressed concerns about the law's impact on its workers and players, and Angie's List has said it was reconsidering its expansion plans in the state.

Pence has hit the local and national interview circuit to defend the law. On Saturday, he told an Indianapolis newspaper that he would support legislation that would "clarify" the law's intent. But Pence said he would not consider adding sexual orientation as a protected class in state civil rights laws. "I will not push for that," Pence reiterated Sunday. "That''s not on my agenda."

Asked repeatedly whether the new law would make it legal for a merchant — a wedding florist, for instance — to refuse service to gay couples, Pence declined to answer yes or no.

“There’s been shameless rhetoric about my state and about this law and its intention all over the Internet,” Spence told his interviewer, George Stephanopoulos. “People are trying to make it about one particular issue, and now you’re doing that as well.”

He added: "We are determined to make it clear that what Indiana has done here is strengthen the foundation and the constitutional First Amendment religious rights of our people."

Pence, a Republican, pointed out that a federal version of the law was signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and that 19 states have passed similar laws since. That included Illinois, where President Obama, then a state senator and also a Democrat, supported it.

Critics who preach tolerance for the LGBT community should do the same for people of faith, he said. "The issue here is if tolerance is a two way street or not," Pence said.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told "This Week" that Pence was simply trying to contain political damage.

"If you have to go back two decades to justify what you're doing today, it may raise questions," Earnest said.

Pence said he was proud of the law and "absolutely" did not think it was a mistake to sign it.

"A lot of people are concerned about government overreach into religious freedoms and I'm one of them," he said.

—With The Associated Press