Indiana Gov. Pence defends religious freedom bill amid continued criticism

Published 8:01 am Monday, March 30, 2015

Republican Indiana Gov. Mike Pence on Sunday defended the religious freedom bill that he signed last week, saying the growing outrage over the legislation stems from “a tremendous amount of misinformation and misunderstanding.”

Critics of the new law say it gives businesses a license to discriminate against gays by citing religious views as a reason to deny them service. They have called for a boycott of the NCAA’s Final Four basketball tournament in Indianapolis as a response to the measure.

Asked on ABC’s “This Week” about whether businesses could refuse service to gay people under the new law, Pence repeatedly said the question was beside the point.

“This isn’t about disputes between individuals,” he said. “It’s about government overreach, and I’m proud that Indiana stepped forward, and I’m working hard to clarify this.”

The governor also said the law protects “individuals when they believe that actions of government impinge on their constitutional First Amendment freedom of religion.”

Pence added that the measure would apply only to disputes between individuals when government action is involved. He said similar laws for the federal government and more than a dozen states have never been used to undermine anti-discrimination laws.

The governor said he expects additional legislation this week to clarify the intent of the law.

One idea under consideration is a proposal to add sexual orientation as a protected class under the state’s civil rights laws.

“I will not push for that,” Pence said. “That’s not on my agenda, and that’s not been an objective of the people of the state of Indiana.”

Critics were discouraged by Pence’s statement that he would not fight for this particular protection if the language of the law is clarified.

“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” within the law, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Right Campaign, a gay rights organization, said in a statement on Sunday.

George Stephanopoulos, host of “This Week,” ended the interview by asking for a yes-or-no answer on whether it should be legal to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

“You’re following the mantra of the last week online, and you’re trying to make this issue about something else,” Pence said. “What I am for is protecting . . . the religious liberty of Hoosiers.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest criticized the governor during a follow-up interview on the show.

“It should be easy for leaders in this country to stand up and say that it is wrong to discriminate against people just because of who they love,” he said. “Governor Pence is in damage-control mode this morning, and he has some damage to fix.”

The Democratic Governors Association echoed that criticism.

“Across the nation, voters know that discrimination is bad for business,” Jared Leopold, the group’s communications director, said on Sunday in a statement. “In November 2016, Hoosiers will remember the harm that Governor Pence caused to Indiana’s economy with this extreme bill.”

Amid the criticism, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, defended Pence and the new law on Twitter .

“What is unfolding in Indiana reveals who the real bullies are,” Perkins wrote, referring to those whom he thinks support the idea of a government that can “punish people for freely living according to their beliefs.”

On Saturday, Indianapolis-based business Angie’s List said that the passage of the legislation had prompted it to halt its plans to expand its offices on the city’s east side. Bill Oesterle, chief executive of the company, which provides customer reviews of local businesses, said they will put the construction plans on hold until “we fully understand the implications of the freedom restoration act on our employees, both current and future.”

“Angie’s List is open to all and discriminates against none and we are hugely disappointed in what this bill represents,” Oesterle said in a statement.

Herb Simon, who owns Indiana’s NBA and WNBA teams, said in a statement that his teams and their playing venue value diversity and tolerance.

“The Indiana Pacers, Indiana Fever and Bankers Life Fieldhouse have the strongest possible commitment to inclusion and non-discrimination on any basis,” Simon said. “Everyone is always welcome at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.”

Another Indianapolis-based business, appliance retailer Hhgregg, said on Sunday that the company is “committed to both a customer experience and a workplace that does not discriminate.”

The mayor of Seattle, Ed Murray, said on Saturday that he will issue an executive order this week that will prevent city employees from making city-funded trips to Indiana. The new law, Murray said, is the reason for his decision.

The law “doesn’t reflect the values of our city. . . . This is why I am ordering that none of our taxpayer dollars should go toward supporting this discriminatory law,” Murray said in a statement.