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Indiana governor backs down, calls for fix to religious law

Greg Nash

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) on Tuesday backed away from his support for a religious freedom law and asked his state Legislature to immediately change it to ensure it would not discriminate against gays and lesbians.

Pence, who signed the bill into law last week, insisted it was not intended to allow businesses to discriminate against gay people.

{mosads}But in the face of a growing firestorm and economic boycotts of his state, he argued state lawmakers should act immediately to quell concerns over the measure.

“After much reflection and in consultation with leadership of the general assembly, I’ve come to the conclusion that it would be helpful to move legislation this week that makes it clear that this law does not give businesses the right to deny services to anyone,” Pence said at a press conference Tuesday morning.

“We want to make it clear that Indiana is open for business, we want to make it clear that Hoosier hospitality is not a slogan, it’s our way of life.”

Pence, who has been seen as a potential GOP presidential candidate, blamed the media and critics of his law for much of the controversy.

He said he believes the law “does not give anyone a license to deny services to gay and lesbian couples,” and argued it had been mischaracterized. He argued that a clarification is necessary to combat the “perception problem.”

“The proper legislative remedy is to focus on the perception that has been created by the misunderstanding,” he said. “This was grossly mischaracterized by advocates who opposed the bill and frankly sloppy reporting.”

The controversy has highlighted the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage across the country, and how perceived attacks on gay rights can backfire. Pence and other Republicans initially applauded the law, seeking to justify it by pointing to the fact that a religious freedom law was signed by President Clinton with bipartisan support back in the 1990s, when the public largely disapproved of gay marriage. 

But when critics charged that Indiana’s law could be used to discriminate against gays and lesbians, public perception soured. A number of business leaders and industries with ties to the state responded swiftly to condemn the law and threaten to pull business from Indiana — just as the state prepared to host the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four.

Pence deflected that criticism during a press conference, asserting that the law only forces the government to have a strong justification for any action that could infringe on religious beliefs.

“What courts have found, without exception, over the past 20-plus years, is that the state has a compelling interest in combating discrimination, and I support that interpretation,” he said, when asked if the law would have forced a Christian florist to provide flowers for the wedding of a gay or lesbian couple.  

“I believe in my heart of hearts that no one should be discriminated against because of who they are, who they love, or what they believe.” 

The Democratic National Committee released a statement bashing Pence and potential GOP presidential candidates who have supported the Indiana law, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

“Nothing Gov. Pence said today changes the fact he advocated for and signed into law a bill that allows Indiana business to discriminate against the LGBT community under the guise of religious freedom,” said Holly Shulman, the DNC national press secretary.

“The business community is not lining up against [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act] because of the media backlash, they’re lining up against RFRA because of what it is designed to do: discriminate against LGBT individuals.”

— This story was last updated at 1:48 p.m.

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